Medieval Towns

Medieval towns

Early medieval towns were quite small and there were probably only about 100 towns in medieval times, however as the medieval period moved towards the late and high medieval periods medieval towns started to expand as populations increased and people moved into medieval town’s from the countryside, by far the biggest medieval town in England was the medieval town of London which had a population of around 8000 (now a city). Medieval towns were usually built within wooden walls and later stone walls that surrounded and protected the inhabitants of the town.

Early market traders | medieval towns

People from the countryside realised that they could sell food, products and goods easily in the new busy medieval towns and early entrepreneurs would take any surplus stock items they had to sell at medieval town markets, sometimes they did so well that they could afford to rent a property in the medieval town as well. Some medieval entrepreneurs moved to the medieval towns permanently to learn a trade or work for rich merchants. Many people from the countryside considered life to be much better in medieval towns because of the products and services that were available and there was also more varied and abundant jobs and entertainment.

Medieval Market

A typical Medieval Market in medieval town

Who created medieval towns

The medieval towns were mainly created by wealthy Barons/lords, these are the people that would have owned large plots of land that would have been given to them in return for services provided for the King under the medieval feudal system. The Lords soon realised that creating medieval towns was a very lucrative business, as not only could they charge high rents for the properties within the medieval towns but they could also collect a percentage of the profits that were made from goods and services that were sold in the medieval town markets.

Medieval town names

Many Towns derived their names from previous historic names such as London which had been named Londinium by the Romans and was the commercial centre of Roman Britain, other medieval towns that were newly created by Barons were either named after the person who had created the town, after some natural advantage that had been the deciding factor in creating the town such as a harbour, river crossing or crossroads where there was a busy flow of travellers or from other sources. You can find many of the original names of medieval towns included in what is called a manor court roll that can be found online.

London was the biggest town in medieval England (now classed as a city) this was mainly due to its strategic location and the fact that the Thames ran through Greater London meaning that ships with cargo aboard could easily travel to different parts of London. London’s docks were busy with merchant ships arriving from all over the world with goods and produce, these were also distributed across the country to other smaller medieval towns. Small medieval towns often held special fairs once a year at special times such as Christmas and this also attracted traders from all parts of the country.

Medieval town rules and laws

During medieval times people in medieval towns saw a need to create rules and regulations on how their medieval town was governed, medieval towns created their own rules which led to each town having different standards, but they all tried to keep their medieval towns clean and tidy as to attract as many visitors as possible, the citizens of the medieval town would get together and write out the rules for the medieval town, some would form trade associations and Guilds to control the quality of goods and products produced, this created a standard for goods and trading within the medieval town system.

Medieval town halls and Mayors

Bigger and more complex medieval towns would also set up councils to help organise and run the medieval town and official positions such as mayor were created, market tolls were also introduced for medieval town markets and there were local law courts set up to deal with any crimes or disorder. 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 which 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 that the more structures of control were needed to run it efficiently.

Exeter Medieval Town

The Medieval Town of Exeter

Downsides of medieval towns

Because of their very nature medieval towns 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. There were plenty of the snake oil salesman types in medieval towns and medieval people needed to keep their wits about them. There was also the problem of overcrowding, general lack of hygiene and dangers such as fires, disease and violence which also made life unpleasant in some medieval towns.

Norman medieval towns

The Norman invasion in 1066 that led to Norman rule across medieval England and introduced the feudal system to England helped to create the conditions prevalent in mediaeval towns, the 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 from France, this 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 which allowed craftsmen to sell more products and helped them increase the size of their operations. It was William the conqueror the Norman ruler of England that realised there was a need to build up trade and wealth in England. 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.

Medieval town layout

The 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 merchants 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 or around the sides. Market traders who did not permanently sell their goods in the town usually set up stalls in the centre of the town. You could usually find buildings such as a Town Hall, Look out tower, Inn, Cooper, Fishermen’s hut, pigsty, forge, peasants houses and even witches huts in many medieval towns.

How guilds organised in medieval towns

Medieval craftsmen thought it was a good idea to set up shop in the medieval towns to cater for a larger population who also had more wealth to buy their goods. Bakers, carpenters, shoemakers and all types of craftsmen making clothes, ornaments and tools were present in medieval towns. Medieval craftsmen were usually part of a guild that basically proved that they had reached a level of mastery in their chosen field of work and had served an apprenticeship. Medieval craftsmen would have poles sticking out from their premises in medieval towns that had flags or signs dangling from them to show people the trade that they were in and the products or services they provided.

Medieval town Hall

Larger medieval towns would have a town hall, sometimes also called a Guildhall to provide a 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.

Medieval town facts

  • Medieval towns were created by wealthy Barons/lords
  • medieval towns were very small in comparison to today’s towns
  • London was the biggest medieval town in England
  • London was a thriving shipping port in Europe
  • people from the countryside moved to medieval towns for a better standard of living
  • As medieval towns grew more products and services became available to medieval people
  • Craftsmen set-up shop in medieval towns and sold their products
  • Poles with flags and signs portrayed what products or services a shop sold in a medieval town
  • Medieval people believed that life was better in medieval towns than in the countryside
  • Medieval towns usually had surrounding wooden and later stone walls
  • Small medieval towns had special markets to attract visitors
  • The Norman conquest of England led to the creation of medieval towns under a feudal system
  • The Normans introduced exotic and luxury goods to medieval towns
  • Medieval towns could be dirty and unhygienic
  • Medieval towns could be crowded and dangerous
  • Snake oil salesman would often target medieval towns
  • Bigger medieval towns formed trade associations and Guilds
  • Some medieval towns had Mayors, councils and law courts
  • Some medieval towns had hospitals that cared for the sick and elderly
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