Illustration of a medieval town built along a waterway with features such as farms, residential areas, stables, a church, a fortification, surrounding forest areas, and bridges across a river.

Analyze Visuals

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?

Towns and Cities Expand

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.”

Town and City Life

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.

Economic Changes

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.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments