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Medieval Town in Toruń

In the 10th and 11th century, near the later town of Toruń, in the place of the Vistula crossing, there was a trading and craft-producing settlement. In the first half of the 13th century the area passed under the rule of the Teutonic Knights, who were carrying out a Christianizing mission of Prussia. In 1231 the Teutonic Knights set up a fortress there, and soon afterwards, in 1233, Herman von Salza, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, granted Magdeburg city rights to Toruń and Chełmno.

The translocation of Old Toruń, performed in 1236, contributed to the further development of the town on account of the communication and trade routes merging there (leading from Hungary and Ruthenia as well as from the south of Poland across the Vistula to the Baltic Sea in the north and to the west of Europe). With time Toruń became a member of the Hanseatic League, and in 1403 was granted the right of preemption of wares (ius stapulae), i.e. a privilege whereby the merchandise transported through the privileged town had to be offered for sale to the local merchants.

Near the Toruń Old Town a new settlement appeared, to which in 1264 the Teutonic Knights granted Chełmno city rights and the name of the New Town of Toruń. It developed mainly as a centre of craft and small-scale trade. In 1454 the Old and the New Town were merged into one urban organism.

Toruń was one of the most active members of the Prussian Confederation and a participant of the Thirteen Years' War with the Teutonic Order (1454-1466), as a result of which, after the recovery of Gdańsk Pomerania and the Chełmno Land, the city was adjoined to Poland. The development of Toruń in the second half of the 15th century was mainly related to the increased activity on the Vistula route joining Pomerania with Poland and to the numerous privileges received in 1457 (minting rights among others). At the beginning of the 16th century, as a result of competition from Gdańsk and of the repeal of storage rights on goods rafted down the Vistula, the significance of Toruń diminished.

The turn of the 17th century marked the revival of the city, due to the Toruń fairs that attracted numerous Polish and foreign merchants. At the same time the city was an important centre of craft production (gold industry, cloth making, and service and food crafts, including the production of its famous gingerbread cakes).

Toruń declined in mid-17th century. Extensive damage was caused by the Swedish occupation during the so-called "Deluge" (1655-1658) and the siege of the town by the Polish army in 1658. During the northern war in 1703 Toruń was attacked by the Swedes, which is when the town hall and some of the town houses in the city burned down.

In the years 1793-1920 Toruń became part of the Prussian annexation (and in the years 1807-1815 within the Duchy of Warsaw), changing its character and gradually becoming a clerical-garrison town with a strong system of fortifications. In January 1920 Toruń returned to Poland. As the capital of the Pomeranian Voivodeship the city developed quickly.

Today Toruń is a big industrial, cultural and scientific centre with over 200 thousand citizens. A lot of medieval constructions have survived in the city - the Old Town Hall, churches, part of the Teutonic castle, numerous Gothic tenements and a set of granaries, the house of Nicolaus Copernicus, the Leaning Tower, the Walls and city gates as well as preserved fragments of fortifications.

The beginnings of the town hall in Toruń go back to the location of the town in the second half of the 13th century. With time the town hall proved to be too little for the needs of the developing city. It was rebuilt towards the end of the 14th century. From the old town hall only the tower was preserved, which was given a superstructure. At the beginning of the 17th century another extension was performed, which left the Gothic body of the town hall unchanged, but which extended the building to three storeys and added corner turrets. In 1703, during a city fire caused by the Swedish bombarding, the building was severely damaged. In the years 1722-1738 the town hall was rebuilt. It was the seat of Toruń's municipal authorities until 1946.

The most valuable part of the town hall is the tower, which is the oldest building of this kind in central Europe. Originally the tower was over 23 meters high, at the end of the 14th century it was built further up to the present height of 40 meters. The first clock was installed in it in 1417, the present one dates back to 1728.

After the Second World War the town hall was restored and adapted to become a museum. At present it hosts Toruń District Museum, whose archives contain many outstanding pieces of medieval art.

The gates leading to the town (the Bridge Gate, the Monastery Gate, the Sailors Gate) were incorporated in a double chain of city walls and together with the towers (named ingeniously: the Dovecot, the Guardhouse Tower, the Monstrance, the Cat's Head, and the Crane Tower) constituted an important part of the city's defence system. Today they are a major tourist attraction.

By the Order of the President of the Republic of Poland of 8 September 1994 the Old and New Town of Toruń, which are the original centre of Toruń, were acknowledged as a monument of history. In 1997 they were inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage List.

Professor Stefan K. Kuczyński
Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences