The Medieval city was similar to modern towns and cities in it's layout, however medieval cities were not as advanced and were different from the civilization we enjoy at present. A Medieval city was considerably smaller with a limited population. Its streets were not paved and there were no tarmac roads like there are today. Medieval cities were quite dirty and muddy although as the medieval period progressed medieval cities became more organised and structured. The modern city originated from the primitive but otherwise functional Medieval city.
Medieval cities emerged as a by-product of the feudal system. Built along riverbanks or near monasteries and castles, they ranged from sparsely populated to densely populated.
Current standards would no doubt regard Medieval cities as small. The Medieval city of London, for example, registered an approximate population of not more than 100,000, a much smaller figure compared to today’s average population of 8.982 million (2019).
Medieval cities were not only small population-wise but their dimensions hardly exceeded 1 square mile with more or less 300,000 residents. The streets were commonly dirty, narrow, unpaved, and muddy. Streets leading to the market square, otherwise known as main streets, were typically covered in cobblestones. Medieval city inhabitants had the duty to welcome rural folks who visited the market square to shop for goods.
Though height may not be a prime consideration, buildings in the Medieval period, particularly those owned by the elites and religious orders, were large.
Churches and manors were some of the largest buildings back then. Bishops resided in cathedrals and as such edifices had to be built commensurate to the status of the people designated to reside in them.
Churches and Guildhalls were often built close to the main city entrance, inside the walls. During chaotic times, citizens flocked to the guild hall for protection. Thus, guild halls were deliberately built large and sturdy to accommodate large numbers of people seeking refuge from war.
Cities grew in places where people gathered like rivers and intersecting roads. They had to be near a steady water supply to provide for the citizens’ drinking, washing, and sewage disposal needs. At times, monasteries and castles spurred the emergence of towns and cities.
The typical layout of a Medieval city included large structures not far from where the defensive walls were erected, a wide-open space that stretched beside the protective buildings and homes normally located in the southeast. The walls had towers and outer surrounding moats. Cities followed a circular route.
Because of limited space, houses ended up in clusters. Some even huddled together. Two houses would face each other in opposite directions. It was normal for the second story to jut out. Residents adopted this building style to have room for more space. As mentioned, roads were so narrow so builders had to make sure the size of the first floor did not encroach upon the public’s right of way.
In effect, streets were dark, steep, sloping, irregular tunnel-like, and sometimes difficult to navigate. Many Medieval houses were made from wood and quick to catch fire. Fire was one of the most daunting problems cities had to face in medieval times then since the majority of residences were made from light materials.
Towns and cities occasionally held market fairs, which attracted people from neighboring villages and other towns. Such events tended to draw large crowds, increasing a Medieval city’s population. Tax registers became burdensome for peasants. Despite the local lord’s power to levy taxes, a tax list was by no means accurate and those who weren’t listed did not have to pay a shilling. The late 14th-century peasant revolt denounced the inaccuracy of tax registers.
Mayors established safety precautions to protect their towns as it was common practice to trade with village people regularly. Towns that did not have walls erected tall fences, locking them at night to keep trespassers at bay. The success of a Medieval city was measured by the number of merchants it managed to attract. Cities under the jurisdiction of nobles were often more popular than other towns. Lords went out of their way to appease merchants.
Having them around guaranteed a surging tax collection. Unfortunately, the huge gap between the rich and the poor made the tax system prone to corrupt practices, a situation that propelled cities to clamor for a charter. Certain rights were bestowed upon the people living in chartered cities including the right to collect their own taxes. When a Medieval city had the power to determine its taxes, it no longer needed the services of corrupt and abusive tax sheriffs. Chartered cities could set up their own courts, speeding up litigation matters.
Hygiene was not heavily taken into account. Medieval city dwellers habitually emptied their chamber pots into the streets. When the streets turned muddy, it became even more problematic. Only a heavy downpour could sweep the streets clean of dirt much to the residents relief.
Medieval cities lacked sound sewage and drainage systems. Light rain made things worse, contributing to city dwellers’ health concerns and water pollution. Insufficient water sources may be the reason why Medieval inhabitants preferred drinking wine and beer to water.
There was also an abundance of beggars and homeless people, who were considered outcasts and didn’t have a proper place in the social system. Whenever a person contracted a disease, more often than not this was viewed as a divine punishment of sorts. Common maladies and diseases that hit Medieval city dwellers included smallpox and leprosy, the victims of which had to be quarantined away from the public.
Rich people could technically buy power. Guild masters came from a moneyed lot and they spearheaded the operations of particular guilds. Wealthy businessmen dominated Merchant guilds while craft guild masters housed famous artisans and craftsmen.
Walls not only protected towns and cities from invaders but they also divided the rural from the urban areas. Although this walled setup gave Medieval cities the appearance of isolation, citizens living inside the walls were free in a general sense.
Freedom, however, did not necessarily mean equality and democracy. Chartered towns and cities had more rights and privileges than their non-chartered counterparts. The fields were usually situated just outside the walls. The walls were built from bricks or large stones and equipped with square and round towers that sprouted at intervals and a moat. In times of war, soldiers would be stationed at the wall while the enemy attempted to breach their defenses. Moats also deterred unequipped enemies from scaling the wall.
These protective barriers had one deadly feature: holes strategically and deliberately placed on the wall’s passage to catch attackers off-guard. Called murder holes (meurtriere in French), city defenders could throw just about any harmful object or substance available into the holes including arrows, rocks, boiling water, tar, hot sand or scalding oil. Cities that could not afford to put up costly defenses like walls installed large gated fences instead. Canterbury and York were well-known walled cities in Medieval England.
Though less organized compared to their Roman and Greek counterparts, Medieval cities nevertheless contributed to the workings of modern-day cities. The manner in which they emerged was closely linked to religion, water resources, and the prevalent social hierarchy.
This article on medieval cities gives you plenty of facts about how medieval cities were laid out and how the people within medieval cities formed their societies, if you’d like to learn more about how medieval people lived we suggest that you look at the medieval London city page and our other medieval life pages by following the links at the bottom of this medieval cities page.