The medieval town was a busy and vibrant place, which had strict regulations to control trade and industry, and law and order.
During the Middle Ages, between sixty and eighty percent of Europe’s population are believed to have lived in the countryside, making their living from the land. But although more people lived in rural areas, those who lived in the town enjoyed a variety of amenities and access to foodstuffs and goods which were not available to those whose homes were in the countryside.
In the high Middle Ages, at the beginning of the eleventh century, urban life in Europe increased, in part due to more trading opportunities within each country, and increased overseas trade. In just 200 years in England, London’s population rose from around 25,000 in 1100 to 100,000 in 1300. All these people had to be fed and housed, and whilst the streets became more crowded with housing, London also expanded its boundaries to accommodate the growing population.
Trade in the Medieval Town
Although the medieval town contained a small percentage of a country’s population, towns benefited from the buying power of those in the countryside, who travelled into town on market or fair days, to buy provisions for the coming weeks. And without the influx of goods from outside the town, many traders, particularly those who sold fresh good such as milk and meat would have been unable to make a living.
In England, the textile trade was responsible for the growth and prosperity of many of the country’s major towns. Centres such as Lincoln, Stamford and York became famous for the quality of their textiles, and in the case of these three towns, easy access to navigable rivers and seas meant that goods could be shipped in and out at a relatively low cost, keeping prices down.
Artisans could join a craft guild, and enjoy extra privileges, such as the right to trade at market, to exclude outsiders from selling their goods within town and to limit the number of practitioners of a specific trade within the town.
The Privileges Enjoyed by the Inhabitants of Medieval Towns
The main privilege of living in a town was rights of freedom, which were exclusively for those within the boundaries of the town in question. These varied from town to town, and from country to country, but were extensively quoted in law courts, when disputes arose. Anyone who lived in a town had free access to markets and fairs, for which outsiders would pay a toll on entry to the settlement.
Other privileges could include the right to a specific plot of land, which could not be usurped by anyone else, and an organised watch-system which protected the town at night and prevented the entry of strangers during curfew.
Despite these advantages, life in the medieval town could be crowded, noisy and even dangerous; large numbers of people living in cramped conditions, which would be dismissed as unhygienic nowadays, meant that disease was rife. Life in the medieval town was not for everyone, and there were many who preferred to live a simpler life in the countryside, visiting the town only to purchase goods.