Population growth in medieval towns led to growth and changes in many other areas as well. What evidence do you see of change that supports population growth?
Many trade fairs closed in the autumn, when the weather made roads impassable. Merchants might wait out the winter near a castle or in a town. These settlements attracted artisans who made goods that merchants could sell.
Slowly, these small centers of trade and handicraft became the first medieval cities. Some boasted populations of 10,000, and by the fourteenth century, a few topped 100,000. Europe had not seen towns of this size since Roman times. The richest cities emerged in northern Italy and Flanders—the two ends of the profitable north-south trade route. Both areas were centers of the wool trade and had prosperous textile industries.
To protect their interests, the merchants who set up a new town asked the local lord, or the king himself, for a charter. This written document set out the rights and privileges of the town. In return, merchants paid the lord or the king a large sum of money, a yearly fee, or both.
Although charters varied from place to place, they almost always granted townspeople the right to choose their own leaders and control their own affairs. A common saying of the late Middle Ages was “Town air makes free.”
Medieval towns and cities were surrounded by high, protective walls. As a city grew, space within the walls filled to overflowing, and newcomers had to settle in the fields outside the walls. Because of overcrowding, city dwellers added second and third stories to their houses and shops. Therefore, a typical medieval city was a jumble of narrow streets lined with tall houses.
Most towns were filthy, smelly, noisy, and crowded—a perfect breeding ground for disease. Even a rich town had no garbage collection or sewer system, so residents simply flung their wastes into the street. Fire was a constant danger with wooden houses so closely packed together. Despite the drawbacks of town and city life, people were attracted to the opportunities available there.
How and why did medieval towns and cities grow?
During the turmoil of the early Middle Ages, coined money largely disappeared. As trade revived after 1000, money again appeared in circulation, coined by rulers. In time, the need for capital, or money for investment, grew. Merchants, for example, needed capital to buy goods, so they borrowed from moneylenders. Over time, the need for capital led to the growth of banking houses.