Stadtluft macht frei.
A lot of terms and conditions applied, and the details were the hard part. How do you stay for a year in a small city where everyone has to have a sponsor, a pass, a place, a confraternity, and a job? Where everyone knows each other? And where, if things got rough, you’d be the first one kicked out to “root, hog, or die,” with the emphasis on die? It didn’t stop people from trying, but it was hard. And even then you might be free, but you still were not a citizen, and would be the second one kicked out when trouble came.
We’re used to cities where you can come and go at will, stay overnight if you can find a room or a campsite, and no one demands to know who you are and what right you have to be in, oh, Versailles KY, or Peachtree City, GA, or Chadron, NE. That’s a very modern change. For two thousand years or so, to be in a true city was to be inside walls. Walls had gates. To pass through the gates, unless something very, very special was in progress, meant that you had verifiable business in the city and someone to speak for you, or a letter of permission. No pass? No enter. Once you came in, you went where you were supposed to, did what you were there for, and departed before the closing of the gates. If you stayed for the night, you had to register and stay in that one place. The authorities got and kept a list of who was where, and why.
We assume that you are free to move, unless you are not. Back then, it was the other way around. Only the politically powerful or a few clergy and monks had real freedom of movement, and even then there were conditions and understandings. A free city could lock out the local bishop, or even the emperor (or lock up the emperor if he didn’t pay his bills. See Bruges for details.) Modern Europe is going back a little to “you’re not really free to go anywhere, maybe,” or so it seems at times.
In some ways the medieval city pass was very much like when I was in university in Germany. I had to register with the local police, and got a very elaborate two-page document of permission in my passport saying that I was in town for a valid cause and should be left alone unless I misbehaved. The university also kept a list of who was attending, from where, and on what program/visa/sponsorship.
In order to move to a city and life there full time, you needed to show that you would earn your keep and not be a professional beggar. Or that you had a connection inside the city who would keep you out of trouble (basically post a bond for you). In some places, you had to be approved by your guild, religious confraternity, or monastic order to remain as a journeyman or to join the local ranks. In other places, the town council checked up on people. This meant that “going to the city to look for work” was often a challenge, with a few exceptions. Cities rebuilding after an attack, or after the Plague dropped the population, or international port cities, sometimes had a little more space. But not much.
If a serf, villain, or bound peasant could stay in an imperial free city for a year and a day, he or she was free from any earlier feudal ties. That meant hiding, finding work, staying out of trouble, and praying that nothing happened to cause the city leaders to force out all non-citizens. Once the stranger passed the year and a day point, he was a free man. Which meant that he had even fewer protections and fall-backs than a serf or bound peasant. And he could still be ejected from within the walls.
Someone could live all their lives in a city but not earn citizenship. Once an individual had citizenship, he (more rarely she) participated in juries and government, in civic defense, in religious events, and contributed money and labor to keeping the place running. Oh, and he had the right of protection when war/famine/plague struck. To lose citizenship and be cast out was pretty much a death sentence. Such rights did not come easily, and required proving that you had value to the city as a whole. People like Alberich Dürer and others made special note when they were granted citizenship of a city, and the fact was noted in the municipal records. Stadtluft might bring freedom for a few, but it brought more expectations and duties than a modern urban resident might imagine.
How many people would want to live in a place today if they had to serve on the police and in the National Guard and Fire Department, serve on a jury on a regular business, pay extra taxes, attend a place of worship at least twice a week AND teach religious classes and contribute to suppers and charity works, and show proof of solvency and good behavior?