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The International History Project
A second great factor in the passing of the Middle Ages was the rise of new towns. The Roman Empire had encouraged the building of towns, but the German barbarians refused to live in confinement. When they swept through the empire they settled on the land and, later, built manors, castles, and villages. As each baronial stronghold was self-sufficient, there was little need for trade except for the few articles carried by traveling merchants. Without trade, most old Roman towns dwindled or even died. They lost their right to self-government and became the property of the barons. The town dwellers did almost no manufacturing. They lived by tilling the land. In the 11th century, however, the Crusades began to stimulate the revival of commerce. Traveling merchants established headquarters in places of safety, such as by the walls of a castle or monastery. Places accessible to main roads or rivers grew rapidly.
Wherever merchants settled, laborers and artisans came. Carpenters and blacksmiths made chests and casks for the merchants' goods, and carts to transport them. Shipbuilders turned out trading vessels. Butchers, bakers, and brewers came to supply food for the workers, and tailors and shoemakers came to supply clothes. Others came to make the wares of trade.
By the 13th century Europe was dotted with towns. Few had as many as 10,000 people. The towns were introducing a new kind of life into medieval Europe, however, for the townspeople now lived by the exchange of goods and services. They were no longer self-sufficient like the small groups of peasants on the manors were; they had to develop a lifestyle based on the idea of exchange. This organization laid the foundations for modern economic and social living.
As the cities grew rich they sought the right to govern themselves. The first to free themselves from the power of feudal lords were in Italy--Venice, Pisa, Genoa, Florence, and others. Towns in France were next to gain power, then towns along the Rhine Valley and on the Baltic coast, where cities of the Hanseatic League grew to enormous wealth and strength. Some of the towns bought their freedom from the nobles and the church; others fought bitter battles to win it. A few were given it.
In the towns the houses were packed together because every town had to be a fortress, with stout, high walls and a moat or river to protect it from hostile nobles, pirates, and robber bands. The smaller the walled enclosure, the easier it was to defend. The only open places were the market square in the town center, the cathedral, and the few gardens of the rich. Main streets led like spokes of a wheel from the market to the few gates in the walls. Building room was so cramped that the houses were built in several narrow stories, the upper floors jutting over the alleylike streets.
Few streets were paved. In wet weather people floundered almost knee-deep in mud. The street was the only sewer. It sloped to the center, and refuse and chamber waste were flung into it. Pigs rooted in the odorous filth.
Wells, springs, and rivers were the only water supply. They were unprotected and untreated, so that plagues were frequent.
Houses were uncomfortable. Most of them had a mere framework of heavy timbers. The wall spaces were filled with woven reeds daubed with clay or plaster. Rushes or straw usually lined the floors. Fireplaces had chimneys, and the peril of sparks on the thatched roofs was one of the worst hazards of town living. The house of the average citizen served multiple functions as his dwelling, factory, and shop. Goods were made and sold on the ground floor. The owner and his family lived on the floor above. The upper stories of the house were storage rooms and sleeping lofts for the workmen.
At night the medieval city was dark and dangerous. There were no street lights. People who ventured out at night took along one or two workmen with lanterns and weapons as a protection against robbers. In some cities cables were strung across streets to hinder fleeing criminals.
Few working citizens, however, went out at night. The workday began at sunrise and ended at sunset. At 8 or 9PM the cathedral bell tolled the curfew. This was the signal to cover all fires with ashes to lessen the peril of houses catching fire in the night.