Medieval Towns

Medieval Towns

Medieval England did not have very many towns and those which did exist were noticeably small in size by modern standards. Most people were village peasants, however religious centres did appeal to people and many evolved into towns or cities.

The biggest towns outside of London were Lincoln, Canterbury, Chichester, York, Bath, Hereford etc - all known as the cathedral cities.

These cities drew all kinds of people to them, particularly traders and pilgrims. After Thomas Becket died in 1170, thousands of people journeyed each year to Canterbury Cathedral as a pilgrimage destination.

The Domesday Book in 1087 included just six towns within its enquiry, and by the period of medieval England, no accurate figures for the towns and cities are available since no count of the population was made, and the figure is guaranteed to have adjusted all through the year in large towns and cities.

A Medieval Town
A Medieval Town

Large market fairs would boost population and probably would have fallen after a fair ended. Tax registers, including the one which assisted the Peasants Revolt of 1381, did not have as much accuracy since many people were able to not register. If anyone was not included on a tax list, they did not have to pay tax.

The growth of medieval towns was normally around easily accessible areas like crossroads or rivers. Water was required more in towns than villages, meaning a nearby supply of water was essential. Rivers provided water used for washing and drinking and these were also used for sewage disposal (depending on whether or not it had been thrown out into the streets).

People ventured into the towns from villages in order to trade, meaning that people leading a town were requested to do all that was necessary for their town’s safekeeping. A lot of towns were built with large surrounding fences and the gates were kept locked at night to prevent unwanted people etc getting in. Canterbury and York had walls which were for the same purpose, but towns would not be able to afford such an extravagant protection method.

Merchants were attracted to a successful town, and the lord who owned a town was responsible for making sure merchants were happy with it since they paid tax. Essentially, the higher the number of merchants in a town meant more tax for the lord to collect - through a sheriff. Because the majority of people were not able to read or write, the system could be easily abused and corrupted.

For this reason, a lot of townspeople desired a charter - this gave a town specific rights which were written clearly in the town’s charter. Many charters provided towns with permission to collect their own taxes, meaning sheriffs could not. Towns could also ask for its own law court in order to settle legal issues quickly.

Towns were not very clean environments as there was no available sewage system and most people simply threw their toilet waste and rubbish out onto the street. Rats were a common problem too, leading to the Black Death. Pigs may have been used for eating leftover rubbish. Water would certainly not have been clean in local rivers as they would be polluted by toilet waste from villages. Since people had no choice but to use the rivers as a source of water and because they did not really know anything about health and hygiene, the consequence was a lot of disease. People were not expected to live very long and life for a peasant in a town or city was known to be "nasty, brutal and short".

Fire in towns and cities were also very dangerous since homes were made of wood. It was also dangerous to walk through a town at night - even though each one had a curfew when everyone had to be back inside their home, there was no police force to address people who broke the law. Towns did not have street lights - candles were available but in a city or town made of wood, this could have devastating results.

It was expensive to build within a medieval town since land was costly - because of this, many medieval houses still existing seem strange as they have a small ground floor, larger second floor and an even bigger top floor since builders built up and out. All of these techniques kept a low cost.

Shops within a town appealed to people and they additionally acted as a craftsman’s home for those working in it. Shops had a sign outside to show people exactly what the person’s trade was - signs were relied on since not many people could read or write.

See also:

Medieval Manor Houses

MLA Citation/Reference

"Medieval Towns". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.