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27 Jul

Life in Medieval Cities and Towns

The inhabitants of medieval cities were far from being homogeneous and distinguished themselves by clothing, way of living, occupation as well as by their rights and obligations. Thus the residents of medieval cities could be divided into four groups:

  • The real citizens (merchants, craftsmen, bankers) who had all rights and privileges granted by the city charter or otherwise and participated in the government of the city.
  • Nobles (lay nobles, clergy) who lived in medieval cities did not have city privileges and were not under city jurisdiction.
  • Residents with special status and obligations (Jews) who were not members of citizenship and were not under city jurisdiction. They were a special class without any rights but they had certain obligations such as participation in maintenance works of the surrounding walls. Their chief occupation was trade and financial services. Jews were generally hated, frequently persecuted and often expelled for loaning money for high interests and for religious reasons. They lived in area that was designated as Jewish quarter or ghetto.
  • Residents without any rights and without their own funds who were usually former serfs. They worked as servants and unskilled laborers.

The residents of medieval cities and towns greatly distinguished themselves from the other classes of feudal society by personal freedom and their economic activity. In contrary to the serfs whose chief occupation was agriculture, the citizens were engaged in trade, craft and financial services. Their position in the feudal society was lower than nobility although some citizens were very wealthy and higher than the peasants.

The medieval cities and towns were relatively small and had few thousand inhabitants. In contrary to the market towns, medieval cities were surrounded by walls which were strengthened with towers, fortifications and moats sometimes filled with water. City could have been entered only in daytime when the big, heavy and fettered city gates were opened. The city gates were closed during the night, while the streets were patrolled by a guard who was supposed to protect its residents from thieves and fires. There was no street lighting at night and the people lighted their way with torches which increased the risk of fire. However, replacement of wooden structures by brick ones reduced the risk of fire.

All medieval cities and towns were notable for narrow streets and low inflow of daylight and fresh air. Cobblestone-covered streets and sewerage systems were very rare and thus the streets (which were irregularly cleaned) were often full of dirt and filth. The water pumped from the wells was often infected and was a source of various diseases. The mortality rate was very high especially in children and infants, while the average life expectancy in the medieval cities was 35 years of age. Ill people were taken care by healers, while some cities had their own hospital and pharmacy.

The apartments had small windows which were covered with animal hide or bladder. In the middle of an apartment was usually a fireplace, while cooking was done in a kettle which hang over an open fire. The main furniture was the bed, while chests were used for storing clothes. Several people slept in a single bed naked but all wore nightcaps. The toilets were usually located outside the house, while the wealthier citizens had toilets inside the house. Those toilets were jutted out of the house but never on the street. Personal hygiene was predominantly limited on washing of face, ears, legs and other limbs with water from the well or with alcohol. Preventing of sweating was considered unhealthy, while armpit was usually washed with herbal wine. Teeth were occasionally brushed with powder which was composed of crushed flint stone, sand, cuttlefish bone, nutmeg, rose oil,… All women wore their hair long but they only combed it (never washed it) and rubbed their hair every three months with a special powder made of starch, rose and orange bloom, bay leaf,… Louses were treated with a special concoction made of garlic, ox’s blood, vinegar and various herbs. Taking a bath in a tub at home was extremely rare and was kind of a ritual which included whole family. First took a bath men in line from the oldest to the youngest and afterwards (in the same water) the female members of the family.

Garbage and contents of bedpans were generally thrown out of windows on the streets which were virtually “cleaned” only by dogs, cats and pigs which run free in the streets. However, despite that the citizens knew exactly which pig was whose. Low personal hygiene and extremely dirty streets resulted in frequent outbreaks of various diseases spread by rodents (rats, mouses) and other pests such as louses and fleas.

Daily life of the city population started according to the season between 4 and 6 o’clock in the morning and ended between 7 and 9 o’clock in the evening. Lifestyle of the city population also determined their eating habits: breakfast was eaten in the morning, lunch around noon and dinner at sun set. The food predominantly consisted of cereals, bread, meat, fish, cabbage and other vegetables and fruits. Honey was used for sweetening, while salt was the most widespread spice – other spices were luxurious goods and were very expensive. Mead, beer and vine were the most popular drinks. Fork was yet unknown and the fingers were the chief “cutlery”.

Clothing rules of city population were very strict and thus social status was evident already at first sight. Wealthy city women were forbidden to wear certain textile materials and designs of clothes which were reserved for noblewoman. However, the rules of clothing according to the social status were often broken which clearly indicates the fact that there was a penance for such “crime”.

Children in cities were raised with strict discipline which was characterized by obedience and sanctioning of inappropriately behavior by corporal punishment. Young boys were given alcohol and unusual food to get used to it with purpose that they would not get drunk to quickly or to be considered picky. Preparation of children for their future profession started very early especially of sons of the merchants who put a lot of effort in strengthening of their physical abilities by teaching them to swim, riding a horse and sending them to study abroad very young. Girls helped in household and were educated (writing and appropriate behavior) by unprofessional teachers at home. Marriages were arranged by parents and were closely connected with business interests.

Medieval city population greatly distinguished itself from the other classes of feudal society in cultural aspect as well although smaller cities were initially greatly influenced by its rural surrounding. The residents of cities amused themselves in pubs and bars, went dancing or bowling and played cards or other parlor games. Public baths were visited by both genders for amusement and to meet with other people, while joined bathing was not considered inappropriate or indecent. In bigger cities developed high culture which was initially greatly influenced by nobility. Similar development also took place education – universities were usually founded by the nobles, while the students were mostly the sons of wealthy merchants. However, medieval city life was besides business and pleasure also greatly influenced by the religion. Medieval city population was deeply religious, celebrated the Christian feast days and regularly went to Mass.

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