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27 Jul

Medieval Cities and Towns

Some of the Late Antique cities and towns in Italy, France and central Germany survived the Fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Migration Period. In the Early Middle Ages those cities served as administrative centers, seats of royal or secular authorities, or seats of bishoprics but eventually evolved into trade centers.

The majority of medieval cities and towns were founded between 11th and 14th centuries often for defensive purposes. Medieval cities and towns were often founded near castles or manors of feudal lords and near monasteries as well as on other attractive locations like near the woods (for firewood), shores of rivers and seas, and near the ruins of Antique cities where could have been found building material.

Great impact on the development and rise of cities and towns in the Medieval Times had the decline of Natural economy or exchange of goods for goods in the 11th century and technical progress of agriculture (plough on wheels, harrow, spade, pitchfork, rake, use of horses and horse collar, horseshoe, water mills…) which resulted in the agricultural surplus. Incomes of the feudal lords increased and they started to buy various luxurious products from the foreign merchants (Jews, Arabs and later Italians). Skillful and successful serfs who made various items for their own as well as their lord’s needs were freed of work on the fields, moved near the castles or manors and began to live exclusively from craft. They were making various products for their lord as well as for other lords and peasants but were allowed to sell the surplus of their products on fairs.

The fairs were usually held on feast days and special occasions at the church but with permission of their lord the artisans were also allowed to trade with their products in the marketplaces at the castles, bridges, confluences of rivers, crossroads, monasteries and other places where gathered greater number of people. With permission of landlords the artisans permanently settled in such places which often evolved into cities or towns. However, before gaining the status of a city such settlements were first market towns with right to hold markets.

Of great importance for the emergence of the new cities in the Medieval Times were also the Crusades which greatly increased the trade in Western Europe. The Crusades were formally launched to free the Holy Land in Palestine but all classes and participants were also guided by their own interests. The Roman Catholic Church saw an opportunity for unification with Orthodox Church, the knights had an opportunity to enlarge their fiefs and the serfs saw a chance to gain personal freedom, while the Italian cities wanted to renew the trade with the East which was greatly affected after the Seljuk conquest of Caliphate of Bagdad in the 11th century.

Italian cities like Venice, Pisa and Genoa took advantage of their leading role in the supply of the Crusaders, took over the trade with the East and evolved into very influential trade centers. However, important cities emerged also in the mainland Europe from the 11th century onwards. The first cities in Northern and Western Europe emerged in the Netherlands, England and at the North Sea, while trade roads which led from Scandinavia to the Byzantine Empire via great Russian rivers resulted in the foundation of Russian cities Kiev, Novgorod and others. Progress of many cities depended on international or long-distance trade but the majority of medieval cities was founded on the basis of local needs and of surrounding rural areas as well as on the basis of the needs and interests of the feudal lords.

Image of the city of Orleans in the early 15th century

Orleans, early 15th century

The majority of medieval settlements which began to distinguish themselves from rural surrounding emerged between the 11th and 14th centuries and were either cities (towns) or market towns. The new settlements were usually founded as market towns which could gain the status of a city only through economic progress. The market town distinguished itself from the medieval city by:

  • the size, the market towns were generally smaller than the cities
  • exterior appearance, market towns were not surrounded by walls like the cities
  • rights and benefices, the market towns had a lot less rights than the cities

Inhabitants of both cities and market towns were engaged in trade and craft, and later in banking, while servants and laborers of various professions worked for wealthier residents of cities for a wage. Besides by economic activity the residents of medieval cities and market towns distinguished themselves from the class of peasantry by being personally free and having their own jurisdiction.

The majority of medieval cities and market towns was founded by feudal lords on their land. However, medieval cities and market towns clearly distinguished themselves from the feudal (rural) surroundings by distinct economic activity and social status of their population which was personally free. Medieval cities and market towns were completely new occurrence in the feudal society and feudal economy what clearly indicates the fact that the medieval cities and market towns developed near older villages and not out of them, while cities and market towns located at the castles and manors distinguished themselves from lord’s estate in both economic and social aspect.

The feudal lords were founding and supporting the establishment of cities and market towns for various reasons:

  • financial benefits; they gained additional income from trade and fees which were paid for using feudal land for the establishment of cities and market towns
  • better supply with various goods
  • defensive purposes; walls that encircled the city under the castle or manor additionally strengthened their castle’s defense
  • increase of their fief value

The medieval cities and towns and their residents residents were granted certain rights by the feudal lords by a town or city charter at their establishment. Thus the feudal lords defined privileges and laws which also served as city’s constitution. The rights and privileges which were generally granted to the residents of medieval cities and towns:

  • Personal freedom. The residents of the cities were personally free and free of rural obligations to lords. For that reason occurred the common saying “City air makes you free” because a serf who fled from his farm into a city became free if his feudal lord did not demand his return within one year. Economic prosperity and personal freedom in medieval cities was a temptation for the serfs who were not allowed to leave their land. Despite that many of them managed to stay in city over one year and to become free of obligations to their lord. However, although personally free they did not have the rights of a citizen (resident of the city) and usually worked for citizens as servants and unskilled laborers.
  • Right to build defensive walls and to keep armed defensive forces. All medieval cities were encircled with walls and additionally strengthened by moats, towers and fortresses and were allowed to keep armed defensive forces.
  • Right to own coat of arms and seal.
  • Right to forge coins.
  • Right to weekly and yearly markets. Medieval cities were allowed to hold markets weekly or yearly. On the markets artisans and domestic or foreign merchants were offering various goods, while the peasants from the city’s surrounding area were selling their agricultural products.
  • Right to obligatory commercial route. All foreign merchants were obliged to pass the city and offer their goods to the local merchants at lower prices. Foreign merchants and traders had also limited retail.
  • Storage obligation . All foreign merchants and traders were obliged to store their goods and wares in city storehouse and of course to pay for the service.
  • Ban of craft in the town surrounding. The residents of the cities opposed the commercial activity of the peasants because according to the feudal system craft and trade were exclusive rights of the residents of cities, while the peasants should only farm the fields. In the city, the peasants were allowed to sell only agricultural products which were needed by the city population and products (such as wheat, vine, livestock) which were important for international or long-distance trade. The peasants were supposed to buy the non-agricultural products in the cities and for that reason it was forbidden to trade or to craft within a certain radius of the city.
  • Right to collect tolls. All who brought certain goods or products in the city was obliged to pay a toll on entering the city.
  • Right to own jurisdiction. The cities were first governed by the feudal lord who also named the judicial power and other city officials. Eventually the residents of the cities gained the right of self-government, election of city administration and judicial power.

The difference between the medieval cities and their rural surroundings was evident already at the first sight. The medieval cities were surrounded by walls and moats filled with water and bridges leading to the city gates where was the entrance in the city. The center of the city was the market square, an open area where were located town hall, the main church and various shops and the market stalls during the time of markets. The houses were arranged in lines on a small area, while the streets were very narrow. Except for the town hall, church and houses of nobles which were built of stone and bricks, the majority of houses in medieval cities was built of wood. Since medieval cities were often destroyed by fires wooden buildings and houses were eventually replaced by brick ones. Expansion of a medieval city was limited by its surrounding walls and additional space could had been achieved only by building higher buildings. The ground plan of medieval cities is geometrically indefinable, while the central square was the only wider open area within the city. The surrounding walls and narrow streets provided better protection from eventual outer enemy but the enclosure of the medieval cities greatly increased the risk of fire and spread of various diseases, especially contagious.

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