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The Medieval World

Medieval Town,
Medieval Countryside

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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It should be clear that medieval society was dominated by the countryside. Indeed, during the Dark Ages the European towns and cities became virtually deserted and were dangerous places in which to live.


A system which had taken centuries to evolve would also take centuries to disappear. The High Middle Ages saw the growth of the towns but did not witness any revolution by the townspeople to seize political power from the aristocracy.

Instead, the townspeople would concentrate on their trade and industry, buying their freedom from the warlords while tentatively trying to establish for themselves some form of municipal government.

The return of economic prosperity did, however, lead to some form of revolution in the countryside. With the return of a money economy, lords were forced to pay wages and so the manorial system slowly disappeared.

Because of labour problems, lords tended to free their peasants so that they could then pay rents in lieu of feudal dues. He could then establish monopolies over them, e.g. forcing them to use his wine-press, bakery, etc., and pay for it.

Peasants thereby gained their freedom, which theoretically made them better off than before, but were bound by other shackles.

This tendency became marked as the High Middle Ages progressed. Initially the peasants were better off because they could demand fair treatment from the lord in return for their labour. It was a marketable commodity and therefore open to negotiation.

The course of the High Middle Ages, however, saw a population explosion which meant that there came to be too many peasants and not enough work. They therefore were open to exploitation and lost much of their earlier gains.

The peasant's living conditions remained generally the same as in the earlier period, i.e. a small make-shift cottage, usually one or two roomed, with thatched roof and badly ventilated.

Unlike the earlier times, however, the peasants no longer lived communally on the manor and therefore were forced to fend for themselves much more. They often had to pay rent for their rooms which further taxed their frugal economy.

One of the direct effects of the economic lift was the production of better crops which in turn caused a growth in population. There was an increase in protein and iron rich foods, such as beans and peas, fish, meat, eggs and cheese, all of which led to an increased life expectancy for men and especially women.

Before the High Middle Ages, men outlived women because women lost most of their blood-iron through menstruation, pregnancy and breastfeeding. Because of the increase in iron-rich food, however, women during and after the High Middle Ages began to outlive men.

Because of the growing population, the demand for more land necessitated the clearing of forests and the draining of swamps and marshes. By the 14th century, therefore, most of the virgin forests of Europe were gone.


We have already seen how, in France particularly, the concept of knighthood gained ground during this period. During the Dark Ages, knights still formed a lowly vassal group.

By the 12th century, in most areas of France, knightly and noble classes were beginning to merge because the knight was becoming wealthier because of benefices bestowed upon him.

The crusading spirit also led the Catholic Church to glorify the institution of knighthood in an attempt to curb anarchy and bring about the "peace of God".

The knight was therefore given a code of conduct to follow and so could gain eternal life merely by being a knight. Knightly ideas began to permeate upwards through society and nobles began to desire to be dubbed a knight.

The aristocracy had, however, become a military class and therefore warfare was a common event. As long as there was no powerful and unified monarchy to curb the fighting spirit or to channel it into more productive channels, fighting would remain a vital element of life.

After all, fighting was what aristocrats had been trained to do and was the chief justification for their existence.

Knights had also become the theoretical protectors of the Church and society but generally the devoted their time to defending their own interests and enlarging their own estates. Moreover, their continual warfare tended to ravage the land.

The papacy attempted to control the fighting by the declaration of the "Peace of God" and the call for Crusades, but it was a slow process to curb the fighting spirit of the aristocracy.

What made matters worse was the lack of emotional control on the part of the knights. The concept of good manners and self-control would only come about during the time of the Renaissance in the 15th century.

In the meantime the aristocracy behaved like children, throwing tantrums whenever they could not get their own way, sulking, exploding in uncontrollable anger in which lives were likely to be lost. Murder was a common occurrence.

The chief benefactor in those times would always be the church. Once the outburst was over, the offender would collapse into an overwhelming sense of guilt. He would then attempt to make restitution by showering gifts on to the Church.


Once the invasions were over and peace was restored to Europe, trade gradually began to revive. Roads into the interior became less dangerous and merchants began to travel more frequently along them.

Commerce in the early period of revival was largely in the hands of the Jewish merchants. They had the advantage of commercial contacts with the Jewish communities within both the Islamic and Byzantine Empires. These contact would also and share with them a knowledge of commercial techniques and contracts.

Money came back into circulation although where it came from is not quite clear since there was little mining of gold or silver till the end of the Middle Ages.

Merchants began to establish their head-quarters, often in the old deserted towns or near the residence of bishops or feudal lords because it was there that customers lived. Craftsmen thereupon began to move from the overcrowded manors so as to produce their wares in the new towns where lords and merchants would be willing to buy them.

As the process began to snowball, so the population increased and the need grew for food to be brought to them. That would be provided by the manors which in turn needed money to buy goods which the craftsmen were now making in town and no longer on the manors.

A busy local trade therefore began to grow until by about 1100 there was a commercial centre at every 20 to 30 miles.

The merchants and craftsmen in the towns had no desire to remain the subjects of their neighbouring feudal lords. The aristocratic warlords were no angels and failed to understand the needs of the town. Moreover, they tended to overtax the townspeople and rob the merchants who were plying their trade.

The merchants in turn had no form of protection because feudal and customary law did not deal with commercial problems. They therefore began to evolve their own mercantile law but needed the necessary machinery to supervise its enforcement.

They struggled to gain recognition of their own law, law-courts, judges and magistrates. Moreover, they sought independence to govern their own towns, avoid feudal taxation and the payment of fees to feudal lords.

The Italian towns were the first to achieve such independence as early as during the Saracen and Magyar invasions. The Lombard counts were too weak to protect the urban population.

Under the leadership of the various bishops, therefore, the burghers saw to their own defence which forced the counts to grant them exemption from their jurisdiction.

Towns which were close to each other and could therefore support one another were the most successful in liberating themselves and becoming semi-republics, e.g. those of northern Italy, the upper Danube and Rhine Rivers, Flanders and the Baltic coast.

Towns such as Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Florence and Milan became virtual city-states and sometimes even dominated the countryside about them.

Many of the towns had to fight for their charters of liberty from the feudal lords. Sometimes this meant resorting to urban riots and revolts to achieve their ends. Many of the feudal lords, however, saw the economic advantage of granting such and some actually founded and chartered new towns on their own initiative.

The development of the towns and the increase in the economy meant peasants could start selling their surplus produce. That increased their motivation to produce in excess of local consumption which led to the development of better methods of cultivation, better ploughs, more efficient harnesses. It also led to a better quality crop on soil which was becoming increased in fertility.


Life within the medieval town was mean and nasty, and one had to live within that society to call it anything else. Generally speaking, the towns of Europe grew with little planning, and buildings were at first erected with whatever material came to hand, usually wood.

Streets were narrow and unformed. Drainage was bad and sanitation non-existent. Garbage and sanitary slops were cast into the streets, to become the food for pigs. The smell must therefore have been appalling and the noise level high, what with pigs, chickens and dogs roaming the streets at will.

Since glass had not yet been invented, windows were open except for wooden shutters. Fires for warmth and culinary purposes meant that palls of smoke enveloped the larger towns.

As long as the towns fell under the authority of feudal lords who lived in the country, little could be expected by way of progressive supervision. Only those towns which established their independence early and became city-states overcame the worst cases of neglect.

As the civilization advanced and people became individually wealthy, so stone buildings began to appear and architecture improved. The prominence which the medieval society gave to religion meant that cathedrals and churches began to abound.

Some of the towns gained a form of municipal authority which looked after garbage (although sanitary slops were probably still hurled into the streets for the pigs to consume), and devoted some time to town planning.

The towns also rapidly took on the liberal culture which marks the development of most urban societies. There was a breakdown of the taboos which accompany the conservative country people.

Drinking houses abounded, prostitution became rife, places of entertainment were established, shops provided what could no longer be grown and people generally came to be dependent on others for almost every commodity.

The strict class division of Clergy, Aristocracy and the classless society therefore began to disappear. There arose instead a new group of merchants known as bourgeoisie because they lived in the towns. Some became wealthy while others remained poor, and in between were all the intermediary groups of semi-wealthy and semi-poor.

The piety of the townspeople became more intense than that of the countryfolk. It was that urban piety which coloured the High Middle Ages, creating cathedrals, hospitals, universities and schools.

All the great saints and heresies of the period came from the towns, people like St Francis of Assisi, St Dominic, Peter Waldo and the Albigensian heretics.

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