Medieval Towns

Medieval Towns

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.

Medieval Towns *Carcassonne France

Medieval Towns *Carcassonne France

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 Town Cologne

Beautiful Medieval Town *Cologne Germany

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.

Castle Battlement Crenels

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.

You could commonly find the following buildings located within the walls of a Medieval Town

  • Castle *Owned by a King or Noble
  • Town Hall *Administrative building of a Town
  • Lookout tower *Soldiers on watch out for enemy attackers
  • Peasants’ houses called cottages made of daub and wattle (mud and sticks)
  • Craftworkers Shops
  • Blacksmith *Forge
  • Potters Shop *potters made pots and pans
  • Wine Merchant *sold Wine
  • Market Areas *Famers bring their cattle and produce to sell
  • Cloth Merchants Shop *sells cloth to make clothes
  • Church *medieval people were very religious and often prayed
  • Brewery *made ale
  • Inn *place for drinking ale and socializing
  • Guild Hall *controlled the standards of goods made by craftworkers
  • Merchant Houses *wealthy medieval people who sold raw materials to make goods and produce
  • Mill *required to grind the wheat to make bread
  • Bakers baked the bread and sold it to the people

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.

Discover the Best Medieval Towns in France

Discover the Best Medieval Towns in Germany

Discover the  Best Medieval Towns in Italy

Discover the Best Medieval Towns in Spain


Medieval Towns *Trades *Workers

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.

A Medieval Merchants Selling Goods

Facilities and Services provided in a medieval town

  • Craftworkers *sold useful everyday items such as pots and pans
  • Blacksmith *made useful things from metal such as armor, weapons, and horseshoes
  • Potters shop *potters made pots and pans
  • Wine Merchant *sold Wine
  • Market Areas *Famers bring their cattle and produce to sell
  • Cloth Merchants Shop *sells cloth to make clothes
  • Church *medieval people were very religious and often prayed
  • Brewery *made ale
  • Inn *place for drinking ale and socializing
  • GuildHall *controlled the standards of goods made by craftworkers
  • Merchant Houses *wealthy medieval people who sold raw materials to make goods and produce
  • Mill *required to grind the wheat to make bread
  • Bakers baked the bread and sold it to the people
medieval-merchant pharmacy shop

Medieval Merchant Shop in 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.

Guild Hall Interior *Medieval Towns

Guild Hall Interior *Medieval Towns

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.

Signed Displayed Outside Shops *Medieval Guild Signs

Signed Displayed Outside Shops *Medieval Guild Signs


Who Created Medieval Towns?

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.

Lord Robert Dudley in Medieval Times

Medieval Lord

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.

Medieval Tradesmen and Merchants

Medieval Merchants

Goods made in the towns by Craftworkers were sold to the townspeople, farmers, and anyone else who visited the town.

A Medieval Peasant Family of Farmers

Medieval Farmers Sold Animals and Produce and also purchased goods when they Visited Medieval Towns


Origins of 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 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.

Medieval Nobility Medieval Baron Oliver St John 1st Baron St John of Bletso

Medieval Nobility Medieval Baron Oliver St John

You can find many of the original names of medieval towns included in what is called a manorial roll that can be found online.

Town Halls and Mayors

Bigger and more complex medieval towns set up councils to help organize 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 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.

Exeter-Medieval-Town

The Medieval Town of Exeter


Medieval Towns *Dangers

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

Pick Pocket Medieval Towns

Pick Pocket Medieval Towns

Fire

Many houses were made of wood and built very close together and for that reason, fires were a constant threat to medieval people.


Were Medieval Towns Dirty and Smelly?

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.

A Medieval Town

Example of a gated medieval town

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.

The Black Plague and Rats

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.


Medieval Towns *The Normans

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 Flag

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.

Medieval Merchants Ships

Fast Ships were used by Medieval merchants

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.

Medieval Merchant From Holland trading in Far East

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 Sumptuary Laws

Money Lenders


Medieval Town Fast Facts

  • Towns in the middle ages were created by wealthy Nobles like Lords.
  • Towns in the middle ages were very small in comparison to today’s towns.
  • London was the biggest town in England and later became a City.
Medieval London Image

London City and The Tower of London

  • London was a thriving shipping port in Europe.
  • People from the countryside moved to towns for a better standard of living.
Example of a Medieval town

Medieval Town

  • As towns grew more products and services became available to medieval people.
  • Medieval people believed that life was better in towns than in the countryside.
  • Towns in medieval times commonly had surrounding defensive walls made of wood and later stone.
Medieval London St-Pauls Cathedral

Medieval London St-Pauls Cathedral

  • Small towns had special markets and events such as fairs to attract visitors.
  • The Normans introduced exotic and luxury goods to towns.
  • Medieval towns could be very dirty and unhygienic.

  • Snake oil salesman and pickpockets would often target larger towns.
  • Bigger towns formed trade associations and Guilds.
  • Large towns had impressive town hall buildings,
  • Some towns had Mayors, councils, and law courts.

Discover the Best Medieval Towns in France

Discover the Best Medieval Towns in Italy

Discover the Best Medieval Towns in Germany

Discover the Best Medieval Towns in Spain

Learn More about Medieval Towns – List of cities with defensive walls