Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Life of the Town

We must now consider the life of the towns during the Middle Ages.

The Germans had never lived in cities in their old homes; so when they came into the Roman Empire they preferred the free life of the country to settling within the town walls. The old Roman cities which had sprung up all over the Empire had already lost much of their importance; and under these country-loving conquerors they soon lost what was left. In many places the inhabitants entirely disappeared; other places decreased in size; and all lost the right which they had had of governing themselves.

The inhabitants of the towns became no better off than the peasants who lived in the little villages. In both the people lived by tilling the soil. In both the lord of the district made laws, appointed officers, and settled disputes in his own court. There was little difference indeed between the villages and towns, except a difference in size.

This was the condition of things during the early part of the Middle Ages, while feudalism was slowly arising, and the nobles were beating back the attacks of the Saracens, the Hungarians, and the Northmen.

At last, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, as we have seen, this danger was overcome. Now men might travel from place to place without constant danger of being robbed or slain. Commerce and manufacturers began to spring up again, and the people of the towns supported themselves by these as well as by agriculture. With commerce and manufactures, too, came riches. This was especially true in Italy and Southern France, where the townsmen were able by their position to take part in the trade with Constantinople and Egypt, and also to gain money by carrying pilgrims and Crusaders in their ships to the Holy Land. With riches, too, came power; and with power came the desire to free themselves from the rule of their lord.

So, all over civilized Europe, during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, we find new towns arising, and old ones getting the right to govern themselves.

In Italy the towns gained power first; then in Southern France; then in Northern France; and then along the valley of the river Rhine, and the coasts of the Baltic Sea. Sometimes the towns bought their freedom from their lords; sometimes they won it after long struggles and much fighting. Sometimes the nobles and clergy were wise enough to join with the townsmen, and share in the benefits which the town brought; sometimes they fought them foolishly and bitterly.

City in Germany


In Germany and in Italy the power of the kings was not great enough to make much difference one way or the other. In France the kings favored the towns against their lords, and used them to break down the power of the feudal nobles. Then, when the king's power had become so strong that they no longer feared the nobles, they checked the power of the towns lest they in turn might become powerful and independent.

Thus, in different ways and at different times, there grew up the cities of mediaeval Europe.

In Italy there sprang up the free cities of Venice, Florence, Pisa, Genoa, and others, where scholars and artists were to arise and bring a new birth to learning and art; where, also, daring seamen were to be trained, like Columbus, Cabot, and Vespucius, to discover, in later times, the New World. In France the citizens showed their skill by building those beautiful Gothic cathedrals which are still so much admired. In the towns of Germany and Holland clever workmen invented and developed the art of printing, and so made possible the learning and education of to-day.

The civilization of modern times, indeed, owes a great debt to these old towns and their sturdy inhabitants.

Let us see now what those privileges were which the townsmen got, and which enabled them to help on the world's progress so much. To us these privileges would not seem so very great. In hundreds of towns in France the lords granted only such rights as the following:

1. The townsmen shall pay only small fixed sums for the rent of their lands, and as a tax when they sell goods, etc.

2. They shall not be obliged to go to war for their lord, unless they can return the same day if they choose.

3. When they have law-suits, the townsmen shall not be obliged to go outside the town to have them tried.

4. No charge shall be made for the use of the town oven; and the townsmen may gather the dead wood in the lord's forest for fuel.

5. The townsmen shall be allowed to sell their property when they wish, and leave the town without hindrance from the lord.

6. Any peasant who remains a year and a day in the town, without being claimed by his lord, shall be free.

In other places the townsmen got in addition the right to elect their own judges; and in still others they got the right to elect all  their officers.

Cathedral in Cologne


Towns of this latter class were sometimes called "communes." Over them the lord had very little right, except to receive such sums of money as it was agreed should be paid to him. In some places, as in Italy, these communes became practically independent, and had as much power as the lords themselves. They made laws, and coined money, and had their vassals, and waged war just as the lords did. But there was this important difference: in the communes the rights belonged to the citizens as a whole, and not to one person. This made all the citizens feel an interest in the town affairs, and produced an enterprising, determined spirit among them. At the same time, the citizens were trained in the art of self-government in using these rights. In this way the world was being prepared for a time when governments like ours,—"of the people, for the people, and by the people,"—should be possible.

But this was to come only after many, many years. The townsmen often used their power selfishly, and in the interest of their families and their own class. Often the rich and powerful townsmen were as cruel and harsh toward the poorer and weaker classes as the feudal lords themselves. Fierce and bitter struggles often broke out in the towns, between the citizens who had power, and those who had none. Often, too, there were great family quarrels, continued from generation to generation, like the one which is told of in Shakespeare's play, "Romeo and Juliet."

In Italy there came in time to be two great parties called the "Guelfs" and the "Ghibellines." At first there was a real difference in views between them; but by and by they became merely two rival factions. Then Guelfs were known from Ghibellines by the way they cut their fruit at table; by the color of roses they wore; by the way they yawned, and spoke, and were clad. Often the struggles and brawls became so fierce in a city that to get a little peace the townsmen would call in an outsider to rule over them for a while.

With the citizens so divided among themselves, it will not surprise you to learn that the communes everywhere at last lost their independence. They passed under the rule of the king, as in France; or else, as happened in Italy, they fell into the power of some "tyrant" or local lord.

But let us think, not of the weaknesses and mistakes of these old townsmen, but of their earnest, busy life, and its quaint surroundings. Imagine yourself a peasant lad, fleeing from your lord or coming for the first time to the market in a mediaeval town.

As we approach the city gates we see that the walls are strong and crowned with turrets; and the gate is defended with drawbridge and portcullis like the entrance to a castle. Within, are narrow, winding streets, with rows of tall-roofed houses, each with its garden attached. The houses themselves are more like our houses to-day than like the Greek and Roman ones; for they have no courtyard in the interior and are several stories high. The roadway is unpaved, and full of mud; and there are no sewers. If you walk the streets after nightfall, you must carry a torch to light your footsteps, for there are no street-lamps. There are no policemen; but if you are out after dark, you must beware the "city watch," who take turns in guarding the city, for they will make you give a strict account of yourself.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


Now, however, it is day, and we need have no fear. Presently we come into the business parts of the city, and there we find the different trades grouped together in different streets. Here are the goldsmiths, and there are the tanners; here the cloth merchants, and there the butchers; here the armor-smiths, and there the money-changers. The shops are all small and on the ground floor, with their wares exposed for sale in the open windows.

Let us look in at one of the goldsmiths' shops. The shop-keeper and his wife are busily engaged waiting on customers and inviting passers-by to stop and examine their goods. Within we see several men and boys at work, making the goods which their master sells. There the gold is melted and refined; the right amount of alloy is mixed with it; then it is cast, beaten, and filed into the proper shape. Then perhaps the article is enameled and jewels are set in it.

All of these things are done in this one little shop; and so it is for each trade. The workmen must all begin at the beginning, and start with the rough material; and the "apprentices," as the boys are called, must learn each of the processes by which the raw material is turned into the finished article.

Thus a long term of apprenticeship is necessary for each trade, lasting sometimes for ten years. During this time the boys are fed, clothed and lodged with their master's family above the shop, and receive no pay. If they misbehave, he has the right to punish them; and if they run away, he can pursue them and bring them back. Their life, however, is not so hard as that of the peasant boys, for they are better fed and housed, and have more to look forward to.

When their apprenticeship is finished, they will become full members of the "guild" of their trade, and may work for whatever master they please. For a while they may wander from city to city, working now for this master and now for that. In each city they will find the workers at their trade all united together into a guild, with a charter from the king or other lord which permits them to make rules for carrying on of that business and to shut out all persons from it who have not served a regular apprenticeship. So, in each important town there were "craft guilds" of stone-cutters, plasterers, carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, and the like, as well as a "merchant guild," composed of those who traded to other places.

The more ambitious boys will not be content with a mere workman's life. They will look forward to a time when they shall have saved up money enough to start in business for themselves. Then they too will become masters, with workmen and apprentices under them; and perhaps, in course of time, if they grow in wealth and wisdom, they may be elected rulers over the city.

Let us leave the shops of the workers and pass on. As we wonder about we find many churches and chapels; and perhaps we come after a while to a great "cathedral" or bishop's church, rearing its lofty roof to the sky. No pains have been spared to make this as grand and imposing as possible; and we gaze upon its great height with awe, and wonder at the marvelously quaint and clever patterns in which the stone is carved.

We leave this also after a time; and then we come to the "belfrey" or town-hall. This is the real center of the life of the city. Here is the strong square tower, like the "donjon" of a castle, where the townsmen may make their last stand in case an enemy succeeds in entering their walls, and they cannot beat him back in their narrow streets.

On top of the tower is the bell, with watchmen always on the lookout to give the signal in case of fire or danger. The bell is also used for more peaceful purposes, as it gives the signal each morning and evening for the workmen all over the city to begin and to quit work; and it also summons the citizens from time to time, to public meetings. Also every night at eight or nine o'clock, it sounds the "curfew" (French couvre feu, "cover fire") as a signal to cover the fire with ashes and cease the day's labors.

Within the tower are dungeons for prisoners, and meeting rooms for the rulers of the city. There also are strong rooms where the city money is kept, together with the city seal. Lastly there is the charter which gives the city its liberties; this is the most precious of all the city possessions.

Even in ordinary times the city presents a bustling, busy appearance. If it is a city which holds a fair once or twice a year, what shall we say of it then? For several weeks at such times the city is one vast store. Strange merchants come from all parts of the land and set up their booths and stalls along the streets, and the city shops are crowded with goods. For miles about the people throng in to buy the things they need.

Thirteenth century fair


Above is a picture of the streets of a city during fair-time in the thirteenth century. In the middle of the picture we see a townsman and his wife returning home after making their purchases. Behind them are a knight and his attendant, on horseback, picking their way through the crowd. On the right hand side of the street is the shop of a cloth merchant; and we see the merchant and his wife showing goods to customers, while workmen are unpacking a box in the street. Next door is a tavern, with its sign hung out; and near this we see a cross which some pious person has erected at the street corner. On the left-hand side of the street we see a cripple begging for alms. Back of him is another cloth-merchant's shop; and next to this is a money-changer's table, where a group of people are having money weighed to see that there is no cheating in the payment. Beyond this is an elevated stage, on which a company of tumblers and jugglers are performing, with a crowd of people about them. In the background we see some tall-roofed houses, topped with turrets, and beyond these we can just make out the spire of a church rising to the sky.

This is indeed a busy scene; and it is a picture which we may carry away with us. It well shows the energy and the activity which, during the later Middle Ages, made the towns the starting place for so many important movements.