Life in Medieval Towns and Villages


By the 12th century, towns growing up around castles and along trade routes became centers of trade and industry.

Almost all medieval towns were protected by gated walls. Open squares in front of public buildings served as gathering places.

Most streets were very narrow. Squares and streets were crowded with people, horses, and carts—as well as cats, dogs, and chickens. Residents threw their garbage into ditches or simply out the window.

Background and Growth

One reason for the growth of towns was improvements in agriculture. Farmers had a surplus of crops to sell in town markets, so not everyone had to farm to eat. The revival of trade also contributed to the growth of towns.

Many merchants and craftsmen who sold their goods in town markets became permanent residents. Some towns grew wealthy because local people specialized in making specific types of goods.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, towns were generally part of the domain of a feudal lord. As towns grew wealthier, residents began to resent the lord’s feudal rights and demands for taxes.

In some places, violence broke out as towns struggled to become independent. In other places, the change occurred gradually. Many towns gained independence by purchasing a royal charter that granted them the right to govern themselves, make laws, and raise taxes. As power shifted to the rising class of merchants and craftspeople, free towns were often governed by a mayor and a town council.

Trade and Commerce

Trade and commerce drew people to the towns. Local people were buying and selling both everyday goods—such as food, clothing, and household items—and specialized goods associated with the particular town.

Merchants grew increasingly powerful and wealthy. Merchant guilds came to dominate the business life of towns and cities. In independent towns, members of merchant guilds often served on town councils or as mayor.

In Christian Europe, there was often prejudice against Jews. Medieval towns commonly had large Jewish communities. Christian hostility and discriminatory laws made it difficult for Jews to earn a living. They were not allowed to own land and were often targets of violence.

Jews became bankers and moneylenders, work which was essential for the economy but forbidden to Christians, because the Church taught that charging money for loans was sinful.


Medieval towns soon began producing many goods. Both trade and the production of goods were overseen by organizations called guilds.

There were two main kinds of guilds: merchant guilds and craft guilds. All types of craftspeople had their own guilds, such as cobblers who made leather goods and stonemasons who built the great cathedrals.

Guilds controlled the hours of work and set prices. They also dealt with public complaints.

Guild members paid dues to their guild. Guilds used the money to take care of members and their families who were sick and unable to work, and to provide cultural events for members.

To become a member of a guild, a child first became an apprentice. The master agreed to house, feed, and train the apprentice. Sometimes, parents paid the master a sum of money. Apprentices rarely got paid for their work.

At the end of the apprenticeship, the student produced a piece of work called a “master piece.” If the guild approved of the work, the apprentice could set up a business.

Source: Life in Medieval Towns and Villages
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