In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Growth of the Medieval Towns of Europe 2. Contribution of the Medieval Towns of Europe.

Growth of the Medieval Towns of Europe:

After the lapse of several centuries since the break-up of the Roman empire, the eleventh was the first to witness positive signs of economic recovery in Western Europe.

We hear of enhanced commercial activities, of new com­mercial settlements along highways and water-routes, of draining of vast swamps and projected expansion in agriculture and all that, in the eleventh century.

The history of the cities during the first ten centuries of the Christian era is obscure. The old Gallic and Roman towns suffered much during the barbarian invasions. But as the barbarians began to settle clown to quieter life, the towns and cities began to assume their former importance and activities.


During and after the barbarian inva­sions the control of the towns and cities lost their municipal form of government and passed into the hands of bishops or nobles, or sometimes control was divided between bishops and nobles.

It was Charles the Great who introduced some uniformity into the government of the cities by placing each of these under an officer with the title of Count. These counts were either churchmen or laymen, and were responsible for their government to Charles. They ruled the cities in the name of the emperor. But after the dismemberment of the empire when feu­dalism was established, these counts assumed a feudal proprietorship over these cities.

Throughout the twelfth century towns and cities steadily grew in increasing numbers and were of diverse origin, and varied greatly in legal status, size and importance; each different from the other yet all had some family resemblance. The violence of the times, specially the invasions of the Huns and Norsemen, compelled people to live together in walled enclosures, and these in course of time became cities.

Growth of trade and commerce also encouraged establishment of towns and cities. Towns on trade-routes by land and water grew up in this way. Inside the towns everything was crammed into their narrow space surrounded by walls and closely guarded gates.


Churches, chapels, monasteries, counting houses, town halls, guild and fraternity houses, dwelling houses of the leading citizens of the towns, schools, colleges and universities were all to be found in eminent towns and cities.

The most noteworthy characteristics of the town life were the organisations of people of common interests into guilds. The chief land-owners and traders formed the merchants’ guild while the manufacturers of the same article or commodity would form into separate guilds of their own, called craft guilds. Weavers’ guild, spinners’ guild, shoe­makers’ guild, millers’ guild, carpenters’ guild, bakers’ guild, etc., were the illustrations of craft guilds.

It may be noted that cities of different parts of Europe had different causes behind their growth. The Italian cities had the advantage of taking share in the trade that passed through the Mediterranean between the European and the Asiatic continents.

Acquisition of wealth led to the acquisition of power. The main causes of the growth and development of the Italian towns were their trade with the East and the fillip that it received as a result of the crusades.


Towns also grew up once the itinerant traders settled down in one or other place and became merchants. Walled episcopal centres and monasteries also served as nucleus of towns. With the coming of wealth came power and the chief Italian towns became self-governing states with only a seeming dependence upon the pope or the emperor.

In the course of time some of the more important cities became entirely independent Italian towns republics. There was also a competition among the large and the small cities. For instance, the comparatively small cities of Amalfi, Siena and a dozen other towns were laid low by cities like Venice, Milan, Florence, Genoa, etc.

France had her cities and St. Louis’ grandiose settlement in Provence, Aigues-Mertes, towns of Champagne which were proudest in Europe during the twelfth century, but lost their importance. They attracted no trade or commerce. In many of them grass grew again and they reverted to their former agricultural states. In France not a single city became independent republic.

French cities did not even succeed in ridding themselves entirely of the feudal lords. After much struggle the cities acquired some measure of liberties and in many cases liberties were purchased on payment to the lords.

The cities of France may be divided into three categories according to the measure of liberties they succeeded in acquiring. In the first category were the cities called villes de bourgeosie besides personal liberties of the citizens some remission of feudal dues was allowed.

The second category called the consular cities acquired all rights of administration except the administration of justice. The courts remained in the hands of the lords. The consuls were respon­sible to the lords for the administration of the cities. The institution of the consuls was, needless to point out, was an imitation of the Roman system.

The third category of cities were communes proper. The lords’ rights over the cities were recognized in two ways, namely, the city paid the lord certain tolls and taxes and could hear appeals from the cities but the lord was excluded from the admi­nistration of the cities. At the head of the adminis­tration was the mayor assisted by a council.

The violence in the communes and the mismanagement of their administration led to the destruction of the French communes and gradually the power of admi­nistration was assumed by the king. In Germany the traders and later in history with the coming of the Vikings, their Viking successors were itinerant traders.

The tendency of these traders to colonies one or the other place or to settle in some convenient places gave rise to many towns and cities. The Rhenish towns particularly acquir­ed eminence as towns and cities in the twelfth century.

The medieval English towns were small like most of their continental sisters, with population varying between one and six thousand. Only York and London were exceptions. The importance of the city of London would be noticed even in the Anglo- Saxon period.

The towns of medieval Europe differed radically from those of the near east, Arab world and also of Russia. These non-European towns and cities were often far more advanced than the European in technology, hygiene, industrialization and the general level of civilization. Between the ninth and the twelfth centuries even the Russian towns were superior to many towns of Northern Europe.

Everywhere in Europe the object of the towns and cities was freedom from serfdom and its annoying entanglements. The townsman wanted freedom of movement, freedom of trade, freedom to marry, freedom for his children to inherit his property without any interference from his lord.

The struggle for such liberties succeeded in a large measure and charters were granted guaranteeing privileges to the towns. The towns could offer shelter to anybody even the runaway slaves and serfs who after a period of continuous stay in the cities or towns would become free. Hence arose the fiction “city air makes man free”. If there were some fully independent towns as the republican cities of Italy, most towns never secured more than elementary urban liberties.

These towns were under the control of municipal magistrates; supreme judicial authority, powers of taxation, military command regularly remained with the lord or the suzerain. While the secular lords agreed more easily to the status of partial autonomy of the towns, the ecclesiastical lords were slow in coming to terms. In Northern Italy and along the Rhine the towns had to wrest privileges from their ecclesiastical lords through violence.

The towns had their problems of defending their liberties and for that purpose maintain militia, pay both for defence and administration by taxation. As it was well neigh impossible for any town to defend itself alone, there arose union of towns such as the Lombard League of North Italy, Spanish League, Rhenish League, Swabian League, and the Hanseatic League.

In the autonomous towns the representatives of the different guilds in which the population was organised carried on the adminis­tration. No foreigner was allowed to trade in the town without becoming a member of any guild.

Equality of status was the chief characteristic of the guilds and hence of the towns. All had to serve for the defence of the country and pay for it. This was necessary clue to the smallness of the population of the town.

Contributions of the Medieval Towns of Europe:

The urban revolution in the eleventh and the twelfth centuries had far-reaching economic, social, political and cultural effects. The contributions of the medieval towns have to be discussed with reference to these diverse aspects.

(a) To the society the medieval towns introduced two new classes,

(i) The bourgeoisie of merchants, Introduction bankers, capitalists, industrialists, etc., and

(ii) The working classes of both skilled and unskilled labourers. With the introduction of these two classes the major part of the economic, social and even political history of the west was dominated by these two classes.

In the working classes of skilled and un­skilled labourers we see the beginning of the proletariat class of the future and in the bourgeoisie we the proletariat notice the beginnings of a new order, i.e. the thud class estate or the commons destined to play so important part in modern history.

The towns played an important part in under mining the feudal and manorial systems. Possession of land was no longer the only title to rank and status. Fortunes earned through industry and trade made the capitalists equally, if not more, important than the former.

The towns and the cities became haven of freedom for the serfs. Serfdom received its burial ground in towns where they were no longer bound by feudal ties and could sell their agricultural pro­duce in open market for money. Runaway serfs could get easy shelters in towns and cities where a continuous stay for ninety days would make them free citizens. From this practice emerged the fiction ‘city air makes man free’.

(b) In their political effects, the towns may be said to have contributed to the emergence of absolute national monarchy. The kings relied on the middle class, i.e. the bourgeoisie and drew the burghers with the Parliaments and States Generals or the Cortes.

In the bourgeoisie, i.e. the third estate the kings found a natural ally against the feudal anarchy and recalcitrance. The middle class paid for the maintenance of the standing army which freed the kings from dependence on feudal military services. Without the middle class the political development of the later Middle Ages and of the modern times is inconceivable.

(c) Economically the medieval towns may be regarded as a transitional structure bridging the medieval with the modern economic systems. Medieval towns and cities formed into independent economic units with their respective customs barriers. It worked as an intermediate stage between the natural economy of modern states and the medieval manor.

Mercantilism which began with the medie­val towns was one of the major economic weapons in the hands of the absolute monarchs of Europe. Medieval towns and cities were centres of indus­trial and commercial life and it was from the medie­val towns that the system of international exchange and traffic emerged, which forms one of the most characteristic features of modern European civilization.

(d) Culturally speaking, the development of towns and cities meant an acceleration of all the social processes of growth and change. New ideas followed the merchants and goods and travelled from town to town.

The moneyed burghers contributed liberally for the improvements of the towns and cities. With the growth of urban population new experiments in municipal life were undertaken to solve the problems that emerged. The wealth of the burghers, i.e. merchants, brought liberal patronage of arts, archi­tecture, painting, etc.

The ruined high-gabled houses, sculptured guild halls, artistic gateways, superb palaces, imposing cathedrals even today bear testimony to the fact that the medieval towns and cities were the foster home of culture. The urban life with all its amenities made life worth living and the luxury that came in the wake of wealth made monastic life or asceticism naturally monasticism less attractive.