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Town Life in the Middle Ages


Peasant Villages


Lords or Nobles ran villages full of peasants known as Manors. The peasants were expected to do a lot of work around the village, for themselves and for their lords. They had to work their Lords fields, as well as their own. They made bread from the wheat they grew with the help of their Lords mill. They usually paid their Lord in crops or animals. They had to haul firewood to keep their homes warmer and haul clean water seeing as they didn't have clean water or electricity. They also had to wait on the members of the Lords family. Peasants usually cooked and cleaned for them.

Around the year 1000, peace and order grew. As a result, peasants began to expand their farms and villages further into the countryside. The earliest merchants were peddlers who went from village to village selling their goods. As the demand for goods increased - particularly for the gems, silks, and other luxuries such as spices from Genoa and Venice (the ports of Italy that traded with the East) the peddlers became more familiar with the complex issues of trade, commerce, accounting, and contracts. They became savvy businessmen and learned to deal with Italian moneylenders and bankers. The English, Belgians, Germans, and Dutch took their coal, timber, wood, iron, copper, and lead to the south and came back with luxury items such as wine and olive oil.

With the advent of trade and commerce, feudal life declined. As the tradesmen became wealthier, they resented having to give their profits to their lords. Arrangements were made for the townspeople to pay a fixed annual sum to the lord or king and gain independence for their town as a "borough" with the power to govern itself. The marketplace became the focus of many towns.


Forming Town Governments


As the townspeople became "free" citizens, powerful families, particularly in Italy, struggled to gain control of the communes or boroughs. Town councils were formed. Guilds were established to gain higher wages for their members and protect them from competitors. As the guilds grew rich and powerful, they built guildhalls and began taking an active role in public affairs, setting up courts to settle disputes and punish wrongdoers.

The new merchant class included artisans, masons, armour makers, bakers, shoemakers, rope makers, dyers, and other skilled workers. Of all the craftsmen, the masons were the highest paid and most respected. They were, after all, responsible for building the cathedrals, hospitals, universities, castles, and guildhalls. They learned their craft as apprentices to a master mason, living at lodges for up to seven years. The master mason was essentially an architect, a general contractor, and a teacher.


The First Companies


The population of cities swelled for the first time since before the Dark Ages. With the new merchant activity, companies were formed. Merchants hired bookkeepers, scribes, and clerks, creating new jobs.

Printing began in 1450 with the publication of the Bible by Johannes Gutenberg. This revolutionized the spread of learning. Other inventions of the time included mechanical clocks, tower mills, and guns. The inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci and the voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century contributed to the birth of the Renaissance.

The end of the Middle Ages left few serfs in Europe, and the growing burgher class became very powerful. Hard work and enterprise led to economic prosperity and a new social order. Urban life brought with it a new freedom for individuals.

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