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Political Organization In The Early Middle Ages


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The Church In The Early Middle Ages


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Conclusion to Pages 1, 2 & 3


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The Making Of Modern Britain

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Beginnings of the French Nation

page 7

Re-conquest of Spain

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Government in Germany & Italy

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The Crusades

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The Rise of Trade and Towns

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The Church in the Middle Ages I

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The Church in the Middle Ages II

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The Intellectual Synthesis Of The High Middle Ages

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Additional Topics

Dancing In The Middle Ages

Castle Life

Cultural Expression

Dynamics of the Middle Ages

Influences of Christianity

Monks and Monasticism

Monetary System

Peasant's Life

The Rise of Towns


The Middle Ages

Date:      1992


Rise Of Trade And Towns


The Rise Of Trade And Towns


     Although scholars have long debated the extent of trade and urban life

during the early Middle Ages, there is general agreement that increased trade

activity was evident before the crusades. With the ending of Viking and Magyar

attacks in the tenth century, a northern trading area developed, which

extended from the British Isles to the Baltic Sea.


     The center of this northern trade system was the county of Flanders. By

1050 Flemish artisans were producing a surplus of woolen cloth of such fine

quality that it was in great demand. Baltic furs, honey and forest products,

and British tin and raw wool were exchanged for Flemish cloth. From the south

by way of Italy came oriental luxury goods - silks, sugar, and spices.


Trade Routes And Trade Fairs


     A catalyst of the medieval commercial revolution was the opening of the

Mediterranean trading area. In the eleventh century, Normans and Italians

broke the Muslim hold on the eastern Mediterranean, and the First Crusade

revived trade with the Near East. Arab vessels brought luxury goods from the

East to ports on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. From there they were shipped by

caravan to Alexandria, Acre, and Joppa, and from those ports the merchants of

Venice, Genoa, and Pisa transported the goods to Italy on their way to the

markets of Europe. Other trade routes from Asia came overland, passing through

Baghdad and Damascus and on to ports, such as Tyre and Sidon, in the crusader

states. The easiest route north from the Mediterranean was by Marseilles and

up the Rhone valley.


     Early in the fourteenth century two more major trade lanes developed

within Europe. An all-sea route connected the Mediterranean with northern

Europe via the Strait of Gibraltar. The old overland route from northern Italy

through the Alpine passes to central Europe was also developed. From Venice

and other northern Italian cities, trade flowed through such passes as the

Brenner, sharply reducing the business of the Rhone valley route and the

famous fairs of Champagne.


     Along the main European trade routes, astute lords set up fairs, where

merchants and goods from Italy and northern Europe met. During the twelfth and

thirteenth centuries the fairs of Champagne in France functioned as the major

clearing house for this international trade.


     Fairs were important and elaborate events held either seasonally or

annually in specified areas of each European country. The feudal law of the

region was set aside during a fair, and in its place was substituted a new

commerical code called the "law merchant." Special courts, with merchants

acting as judges, settled all disputes. In England such courts were called

"pie-powder courts," from the French pied poudre, meaning "dusty foot." Fairs

also greatly stimulated the revival of a money economy and early forms of

banking and credit.


Factors In The Rise Of Towns


     The resurgence of trade in Europe was a prime cause of the revival of

towns; the towns arose because of trade, but they also stimulated trade by

providing greater markets and by producing goods for the merchants to sell.


     In this revival, geography played a significant role. Rivers, important

to the evolution of ancient civilizations, were also important in the

development of medieval towns. They were natural highways on which articles of

commerce could be easily transported.


     Another factor contributing to the rise of towns was population growth.

In Britian, for example, the population more than tripled between 1066 and

1350. The reasons for this rapid increase in population are varied. The ending

of bloody foreign invasions and, in some areas, the stabilization of feudal

society were contributing factors. More important was an increase in food

production brought about by the cultivation of wastelands, clearing of

forests, and draining of marshes.


Merchant And Craft Guilds


     In each town the merchants and artisans organized themselves into guilds,

which were useful not only for business but also for social and political

purposes. There were two kinds of guilds: merchant and craft.


     The merchant guild ensured a monopoly of trade within a given locality.

All alien merchants were supervised closely and made to pay tolls. Disputes

among merchants were settled at the guild court according to its own legal

code. The guilds also tried to make sure that the customers were not cheated:

they checked weights and measures and insisted upon a standard quality for

goods. To allow only a legitimate profit, the guild fixed a "just price,"

which was fair to both producer and customer.


     The guild's functions stretched beyond business and politics into

charitable and social activities. A guildsman who fell into poverty received

aid from the guild. The guild also provided financial assistance for the

burial expense of its members and looked after their dependents. Members

attended social meetings in the guildhall and periodically held processions in

honor of their patron saints.


     With the increase of commerce in the towns, artisans began to organize as

early as the eleventh century. Craftsmen in each of the medieval trades -

weaving, cobbling, tanning, and so on - joined forces. The result was the

craft guild, which differed from the merchant guild in that membership was

limited to artisans in one particular craft.


     The general aims of the craft guilds were the same as those of the

merchant guilds - the creation of a monopoly and the enforcement of a set of

trade rules. Each guild had a monopoly of a certain article in a particular

town, and every effort was made to prevent competition between members of the

same guild. The guild restricted the number of its members, regulated the

quantity and quality of the goods produced, and set prices. It also enforced

regulations to protect the consumer from bad workmanship and inferior



     The craft guild also differed from the merchant guild in its recognition

of three distinct classes of workers - apprentices, journeymen, and master

craftsmen. The apprentice was a youth who lived at the master's house and was

taught the trade thoroughly. Although the apprentice received no wages, all

his physical needs were supplied. Apprenticeship commonly lasted seven years.

When the apprentice's schooling was finished, the youth became a journeyman.

He was then eligible to receive wages and to be hired by a master. At about

age twenty-three, the journeyman sought admission into the guild as a master.

To be accepted he had to prove his ability. Some crafts demanded the making of

a "master piece" - for example, a pair of shoes that the master shoemakers

would find acceptable in every way.


Acquiring Urban Freedom


     The guilds played an important role in local government. Both artisans

and merchants, even though freemen, were subject to the feudal lord or bishop

on whose domain the city stood. The citizens of the towns resented the fact

that their overlord collected tolls and dues as though they were serfs. The

townsmen demanded the privileges of governing themselvesof making their own

laws, administering their own justice, levying their own taxes, and issuing

their own coinage. Naturally the overlord resented the impertinent upstarts

who demanded self-government. But the towns won their independence in various



     One way was to become a commune, a self-governing town. The merchant

guilds took the lead in acquiring charters of self-government for the towns.

Often a charter had to be won by revolt; in other circumstances it could be

purchased, for a feudal lord was always in need of money. By 1200 the Lombard

towns of northern Italy, as well as many French and Flemish towns, had become

self-governing communes.


     Where royal authority was strong, a town could be favored as

"privileged." In a charter granted to the town by the monarch, the inhabitants

won extensive financial and legal powers. The town was given management of its

own finances and paid its taxes in a lump sum to the king. It was also

generally given the right to elect its own officials. The king was usually

glad to grant such a charter, for it weakened the power of the nobles and won

for the monarch the support of the townspeople.


     Founding new towns was still another way in which feudal restrictions

were broken down. Shrewd lords and kings, who recognized the economic value of

having towns in their territories, founded carefully planned centers with

well-designed streets and open squares. As a means of obtaining inhabitants,

they offered many inducements in the form of personal privileges and tax



     Interacting with the growth of towns was the decline of serfdom. Many

serfs escaped from the manors and made their way to the towns. After living a

year and a day in the town, a serf was considered a freeman.


The Bourgeoisie


     The triumph of the townspeople in their struggle for greater

self-government meant that a new class evolved in Europe - a powerful,

independent, and self-assured group, whose interest in trade was to

revolutionize social, economic, and political history. The members of this

class were called burghers and came to be called bourgeoisie. Kings came to

rely more and more on them in combating the power of the feudal lords, and

their economic interest gave rise to an early capitalism. Also associated with

the rise of towns and the bourgeoisie were the decline of serfdom and the

manorial system and the advent of modern society.


     A medieval townsman's rank was based on money and goods rather than birth

and land. At the top of the social scale were the princes of trade, the great

merchants and banking families, bearing such names as Medici, Fugger, and

Coeur. Then came the moderately wealthy merchants and below them the artisans

and small shopkeepers. On the lowest level were the unskilled laborers, whose

miserable lot and discontent were destined to continue through the rest of the

Middle Ages.

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