New Series Sheds Light on Explosion of Town Life in the Middle Ages

both trade and population boom led to commercial towns

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Trade networks drastically changed society and culture during the Middle Ages. A spike in population also helped the establishment of cities and commercial towns. How did towns and cities get started?

Powder Gate, Prague Old Town, 11th century
Built in the 11th century, Prague’s Powder Tower, or “Powder Gate,” marks the boundary between Old Town and New Town. Photo by Richard Mortel / Wikimedia Commons / (CC BY 2.0)

It can be easy to take for granted the close living proximity of today. Many of us live in areas where we can walk to any number of stores, restaurants, or neighbors’ houses in half an hour. However, towns themselves, which date back to the Neolithic period and Ancient Greece, exploded during the Middle Ages. Before this, much of humanity was scattered much further apart.

The living and economic situations of the 11th century CE gave rise to commercial towns. In her video series The Middle Ages around the World, Dr. Joyce E. Salisbury, Professor Emerita of Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, illuminates the rich history of medieval towns.

How Were Medieval Towns Formed?

“During the Early Middle Ages after the fall of the western Roman Empire, the few towns in the west were primarily administration centers—that’s where a bishop might live as he presided over the church’s business,” Dr. Salisbury said. “After the year 1000, with the population growth and an increased desire for trade, more cities grew up to satisfy commercial needs.”

In order to form a commercial town, the interested group of people would obtain a charter from whichever lord owned the land where they wanted to build the town. Charters granted them freedom from the labor obligations to which peasants, like serfs, were often bound. The charters also guaranteed protection from unfair taxation. In return, the landowner received ongoing stipends from the town.

“These towns occupied a violent world, so residents first built walls to protect themselves,” Dr. Salisbury said. “These walls defined the space of a city so thoroughly that the earliest definition of a town in a 16th-century dictionary claimed they were residential areas surrounded by walls.”

How Were Medieval Towns Governed?

The freedoms that were guaranteed within the walls of a town meant that the residents had to devise ways to govern themselves. Otherwise, each township would experience complete anarchy. So, how did they do this?

“The townspeople joined together in mutual aid and protection associations called communes,” Dr. Salisbury said. “The communes elected their own officials, regulated taxation within the town, and generally provided safety and security within the walls. They were not democratic, for people accepted it as natural that rich citizens would govern the town; so, merchants were disproportionately represented as leaders.

“This, in turn, stimulated long-distance trade.”

Additionally, tradesmen in these towns discovered that they could regulate trade and manufacturing within their respective towns, forming guilds to establish rules and guidelines for their trades. Goldsmiths, cobblers, bakers, and others established guilds which would decide who could work in the trade and which regulated prices and quality of work. Families even arranged marriages to keep control of commerce within an industry.

“Boys and girls served as apprentices in the shops until they learned the trade,” Dr. Salisbury said. “Then they could work as a paid employee, called a journeyman, under the guidance of a guild member. Finally, a journeyman had to provide a sample of their best work […] to the guild masters. If this ‘masterpiece’ was found worthy, they journeyman was promoted to a full member of the guild—a master.”

The Middle Ages around the World is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily