Medieval Town Life

In the early stages of the Medieval town development its life was influenced by the services due to the manorial lords. In England, only a small number of towns founded by Edward I were free from the beginning of their existence. With the nobles being involved in warfare most of the time, the towns gradually acquired their independence, and in the later Middle Ages they possessed extensive powers of self-government, with some of them having their own mints. Their wealth is proven by the frequent loans granted to the King, and this was an important factor of their growing importance.

Characteristic for the English towns was the fact that they did not form confederations like the German or Italian cities. Each stood apart by itself, and negotiated with its neighbours as if it was a separate state. Hence, people of the Middle Ages towns boasted an intense local patriotism, a result of their struggle for liberty. Their main interests were municipal rather than national, focusing mainly on the prosperity of their town.

Middle Ages Town Life - Butchers Shops

Shops in the Medieval Town of Shrewsbury

In the Medieval towns, the great and small problems of life, their prosperity and safety, regulations of trade, all were the business of the citizens alone. To a burgher living in the later Medieval times, the care and protection of the State were virtually non-existent, and the duties and responsibilities were thrown on the towns people themselves.

Town military life

Life in a Medieval town was subject to an almost military discipline, and the inhabitants served under a system of universal conscription.

Towns on the sea coast and on the borders of Wales and Scotland, were liable to attack from outside foes, and they were obliged to be continuously on the alert. Fees were levied for maintenance of the walls and other fortifications.

Within the town boundaries, the burghers had to serve at their own cost. When their forces were called to join the King’s army, the municipal officers had to get the troops ready, to provide their dress, to appoint the commanders, and to collect the money for the soldiers’ pay. The military readiness of the town people was reviewed twice a year. Those considered fit for the service appeared armed with whatever they could afford: the poor with knife and dagger, the prosperous burghers displaying chain mail armor, bucklers, bows, arrows, and swords.

For the safety of the town community, each householder was bound to take his turn in keeping nightly watch and ward in the streets. It was the duty of all burgesses to help the officers of the city to arrest felons, or to keep the peace if riots broke out.

The common treasure was used in case bribes and lawsuits were needed to preserve the town rights. If law failed, the burghers were ready to use force without hesitation. Their resolution in defending the town way of living was generated by the burgess’ sense of common property in the borough. The value of woodland and field and meadow which made up the “common lands” was well understood by the freeman.

Social life governed by town laws

The towns had legislative powers. Not that they could contravene the Medieval law of the land, but they could supplement it. They possessed their own law courts, and often full judicial powers.

The mayor and a certain number of aldermen had power to hear and determine felonies, murders, trespasses, and any other cause pertaining to any Justice of the Peace.

Towns decided cases brought before their courts according to their own customary law, which sometimes differed considerably from the common law. These custom laws offer a wealth of information regarding the characters of their makers, and the conditions of social life.

The Medieval town’s codes show more desire than the common law to protect those who could not do it by themselves, and were more lenient towards human weakness. These features are apparent in their treatment of women and children, and in the customs concerning wills.

Town life privileges

In compensation for so many duties, the town people had also privileges. In their own city they could buy and sell freely, while others were obliged to pay traffic licenses fees. Many towns obtained for their citizens exceptions from the payment of tolls throughout the kingdom, both by sea and land. People could appeal to the civic authorities for assistance if they had difficulties while in other towns, if their goods were wrongfully seized or if they were forced to plead in courts outside their territory.

How the town Guilds influenced life

The Medieval Guilds were a very important element in town life. Almost every trade had its guild which regulated the industry, and gave assistance to members who fell into poverty through old age or misfortune. In the majority of towns, the mayor and corporation gained control of the guilds in the fifteenth century.

Entertainment in town life

Despite such a busy leaving, the Medieval people had their recreation moments. Some observances were characteristic of town life. They expressed religious devotion, civic pride, and good cheer. Such were the festivals of St. Peter and St. John, and the celebration of Corpus Christi Day. There were also feasts and parades on other holidays. The most impressive pageantry was displayed when the town entertained royal visitors.

All the inhabitants shared in supporting the minstrels and players of the borough. Minstrel, harpers, pipers, singers and play-actors journeyed from one town to another, and were rewarded at the public expense.

Role of the Church in urban life

The churches of Middle Ages towns, besides glorifying God, were at the heart of the town life, and an expression of the highest aspirations of the people. The parish church stood in the Market Place, close to the Common House or Guild Hall. From the church tower the bell rang out calling the people to defend the city, to participate in a general assembly, or to proclaim the opening of the market.

In the beginning, the Church was also the Common Hall where the commonalty met to audit the town accounts, to divide the common lands, to hire soldiers, or to elect the mayor. It was the place for justices to sit and hear cases of assault and theft; or it might serve as a hall where difficult legal questions could be argued out by lawyers.

The seats in the church were assigned by the corporation in the same rank and order as the stalls assigned in the market place, with the city officers and their wives in the chief places of honour.

In the later Middle Ages, the town inhabitants built Town Halls and Guild Halls. In England, London, York and Coventry had theirs built in the fifteenth century.

The Medieval town people, maybe narrow in their aims and selfish, had a whole hearted affection for their town and its welfare, and their pride in its beauty made the life very real and absorbing.