The golden era of the medieval town was between 950 and 1350, by the year 1100 small towns were being established all over Europe. The Normans also had a big influence on the development of medieval towns.
Early medieval towns and cities were quite small compared to today’s standards, however as time progressed and moved towards the high and late medieval periods towns started to expand in size, and the populations of medieval towns increased.
The majority of medieval people lived in villages and worked on the land, as more towns were established people from the countryside began to migrate to these new urban areas.
Medieval towns were built in the vicinity of the castle of a king or other nobleman, commonly a protective wall was built that enclosed both the castle and the town. In return for being allowed to live and work in the town and for the protection provided by the lord who lived in the castle, the people of the town were required to pay rent to the lord.
People were free to do whatever work they wished within reason and work what hours they wanted, as long as the Lord was paid his rent he was usually kept happy. Commonly outsiders who came to visit a medieval town had to pay a fee to get in called a ‘Toll’ at the protected Gatehouse area.
A medieval town was usually surrounded by a large stone wall with one main entrance in and out of the town, this kept the inhabitants of the town safe and helped people in the town monitor visitors.
Craftsmen and merchant shops and houses were usually built around the inside of the walls and there was usually a church or other official building such as the town hall which could be located in the middle of the town square. Market traders who did not permanently sell their goods in the town usually set up stalls in the center of the town.
Larger medieval towns would have a town hall, sometimes also called a Guildhall to provide an administrative base for the town, this is where all the rules and regulations were made and the concerns of medieval people could be considered and acted upon.
Just as medieval manor estates were self-sustaining so were medieval towns, all the facilities required for a medieval person to live a happy life were provided within a medieval town.
Craftworkers made useful things that were needed by the inhabitants of a town including clothes, pots and pans, and other items.
As medieval towns developed craftworkers decided they needed a set of minimum standards for the items they produced and set up what was called Guilds. These Guilds ensured that goods were made to a good standard and that craftworkers were properly trained, this was all controlled by officials working in the Guild Hall.
Apprentice craftworkers were called ‘journeymen’ and were taught their trade by master craftsmen but this was a difficult process and only the best craftworkers would eventually become masters. Medieval people had to serve an apprenticeship of around 7 years under master craftsmen before they could produce a piece of work for the Guild to consider worthy of them being allowed to join the Guild.
Signs were displayed outside shops to show the Guild that medieval craftworkers were in and also indicated what goods or services they provided.
Medieval towns were mainly created by wealthy nobles, these are the people that would have owned large plots of land that would have been given to them by the king in return for services provided under the feudal system.
The nobility soon realized that creating towns was a very lucrative business, not only could they charge high rents for the properties within the medieval towns, collect tolls off people entering the towns, but they could also collect a percentage of the profits that were made from goods and services that were sold in the town’s shops and markets.
Goods made in the towns by Craftworkers were sold to the townspeople, farmers, and anyone else who visited the town.
Many Towns derived their names from previous historic names such as London which had been named Londinium by the Romans and was the commercial center of Roman Britain.
Other towns that were newly created by Barons were sometimes named after the Lord or Baron who had created the town. Towns also took their names from some natural advantage they held such as a harbor, river crossing, or crossroads where there was a busy flow of travelers.
Special teams could be set up to carry out any emergency repairs and building work in larger medieval towns. Some medieval towns also set up hospitals that were charity-based to take care of the old and sick people within the medieval town, in conclusion, it seemed to follow that the bigger the medieval town the more structures of control were needed to run it efficiently.
Medieval towns usually had very well-built defensive walls around them which made them safe for the inhabitants from obvious outside attacks.
However because towns attracted large amounts of people they also attracted the rouge elements of medieval society, some people wanted to make a fast buck selling shoddy products and being dishonest with weights and measures of foods, etc. pickpockets and oil snake salesmen also frequently visited medieval towns and medieval people needed to keep their wits about them
Many houses were made of wood and built very close together and for that reason, fires were a constant threat to medieval people.
Most medieval towns had narrow, winding streets, and houses were built close together, sometimes roofs were so close on the opposite side of the street that they almost touched.
There was also a general lack of hygiene as people would often throw their waste onto the streets, regulations prohibiting the tipping of waste into the street were commonly ignored. In later medieval times, this situation improved with better drainage systems and stricter rules and regulations.
The poorer classes would commonly share an outside toilet, which led to a cesspit into which all their other household waste would also be thrown, some poor soul was given the task of emptying these cesspits, usually a paid laborer dedicated to that job. Wealthier people in medieval towns such as merchants and lords commonly had their own toilets and cesspit, which were not shared.
Medieval streets were usually dirty, smelly, and disease-ridden with rats and other vermin commonplace, this situation greater contributed to the massive loss of life during the Black Death 1346 – 1352.
The Norman invasion of 1066 led to Norman rule across medieval England and introduced the feudal system to England. It was William the conqueror the Norman ruler of England that realized there was a need to build up trade and wealth in England.
Norman rulers had plenty of good trading contacts throughout Europe and were able to bring in many luxurious products from different corners of the world which were sold in medieval towns, particularly in France, which attracted more people to medieval towns.
This also provided a platform in which craftsmen and merchants in English medieval towns could export their goods to other countries as well, which allowed craftsmen to sell more products and helped them increase the size of their operations and their own personal fortunes.
English Christians at this time did not believe that they should profit from lending money, so Jewish merchants who were prepared to lend money were encouraged to settle in English medieval towns.