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The Middle Ages
Rise Of Trade And Towns
The Rise Of Trade And Towns
Although scholars have long debated the extent of trade and urban life
during the early Middle Ages, there is general agreement that increased trade
activity was evident before the crusades. With the ending of Viking and Magyar
attacks in the tenth century, a northern trading area developed, which
extended from the British Isles to the Baltic Sea.
The center of this northern trade system was the county of Flanders. By
1050 Flemish artisans were producing a surplus of woolen cloth of such fine
quality that it was in great demand. Baltic furs, honey and forest products,
and British tin and raw wool were exchanged for Flemish cloth. From the south
by way of Italy came oriental luxury goods - silks, sugar, and spices.
Trade Routes And Trade Fairs
A catalyst of the medieval commercial revolution was the opening of the
Mediterranean trading area. In the eleventh century, Normans and Italians
broke the Muslim hold on the eastern Mediterranean, and the First Crusade
revived trade with the Near East. Arab vessels brought luxury goods from the
East to ports on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. From there they were shipped by
caravan to Alexandria, Acre, and Joppa, and from those ports the merchants of
Venice, Genoa, and Pisa transported the goods to Italy on their way to the
markets of Europe. Other trade routes from Asia came overland, passing through
Baghdad and Damascus and on to ports, such as Tyre and Sidon, in the crusader
states. The easiest route north from the Mediterranean was by Marseilles and
up the Rhone valley.
Early in the fourteenth century two more major trade lanes developed
within Europe. An all-sea route connected the Mediterranean with northern
Europe via the Strait of Gibraltar. The old overland route from northern Italy
through the Alpine passes to central Europe was also developed. From Venice
and other northern Italian cities, trade flowed through such passes as the
Brenner, sharply reducing the business of the Rhone valley route and the
famous fairs of Champagne.
Along the main European trade routes, astute lords set up fairs, where
merchants and goods from Italy and northern Europe met. During the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries the fairs of Champagne in France functioned as the major
clearing house for this international trade.
Fairs were important and elaborate events held either seasonally or
annually in specified areas of each European country. The feudal law of the
region was set aside during a fair, and in its place was substituted a new
commerical code called the "law merchant." Special courts, with merchants
acting as judges, settled all disputes. In England such courts were called
"pie-powder courts," from the French pied poudre, meaning "dusty foot." Fairs
also greatly stimulated the revival of a money economy and early forms of
banking and credit.
Factors In The Rise Of Towns
The resurgence of trade in Europe was a prime cause of the revival of
towns; the towns arose because of trade, but they also stimulated trade by
providing greater markets and by producing goods for the merchants to sell.
In this revival, geography played a significant role. Rivers, important
to the evolution of ancient civilizations, were also important in the
development of medieval towns. They were natural highways on which articles of
commerce could be easily transported.
Another factor contributing to the rise of towns was population growth.
In Britian, for example, the population more than tripled between 1066 and
1350. The reasons for this rapid increase in population are varied. The ending
of bloody foreign invasions and, in some areas, the stabilization of feudal
society were contributing factors. More important was an increase in food
production brought about by the cultivation of wastelands, clearing of
forests, and draining of marshes.
Merchant And Craft Guilds
In each town the merchants and artisans organized themselves into guilds,
which were useful not only for business but also for social and political
purposes. There were two kinds of guilds: merchant and craft.
The merchant guild ensured a monopoly of trade within a given locality.
All alien merchants were supervised closely and made to pay tolls. Disputes
among merchants were settled at the guild court according to its own legal
code. The guilds also tried to make sure that the customers were not cheated:
they checked weights and measures and insisted upon a standard quality for
goods. To allow only a legitimate profit, the guild fixed a "just price,"
which was fair to both producer and customer.
The guild's functions stretched beyond business and politics into
charitable and social activities. A guildsman who fell into poverty received
aid from the guild. The guild also provided financial assistance for the
burial expense of its members and looked after their dependents. Members
attended social meetings in the guildhall and periodically held processions in
honor of their patron saints.
With the increase of commerce in the towns, artisans began to organize as
early as the eleventh century. Craftsmen in each of the medieval trades -
weaving, cobbling, tanning, and so on - joined forces. The result was the
craft guild, which differed from the merchant guild in that membership was
limited to artisans in one particular craft.
The general aims of the craft guilds were the same as those of the
merchant guilds - the creation of a monopoly and the enforcement of a set of
trade rules. Each guild had a monopoly of a certain article in a particular
town, and every effort was made to prevent competition between members of the
same guild. The guild restricted the number of its members, regulated the
quantity and quality of the goods produced, and set prices. It also enforced
regulations to protect the consumer from bad workmanship and inferior
The craft guild also differed from the merchant guild in its recognition
of three distinct classes of workers - apprentices, journeymen, and master
craftsmen. The apprentice was a youth who lived at the master's house and was
taught the trade thoroughly. Although the apprentice received no wages, all
his physical needs were supplied. Apprenticeship commonly lasted seven years.
When the apprentice's schooling was finished, the youth became a journeyman.
He was then eligible to receive wages and to be hired by a master. At about
age twenty-three, the journeyman sought admission into the guild as a master.
To be accepted he had to prove his ability. Some crafts demanded the making of
a "master piece" - for example, a pair of shoes that the master shoemakers
would find acceptable in every way.
Acquiring Urban Freedom
The guilds played an important role in local government. Both artisans
and merchants, even though freemen, were subject to the feudal lord or bishop
on whose domain the city stood. The citizens of the towns resented the fact
that their overlord collected tolls and dues as though they were serfs. The
townsmen demanded the privileges of governing themselvesof making their own
laws, administering their own justice, levying their own taxes, and issuing
their own coinage. Naturally the overlord resented the impertinent upstarts
who demanded self-government. But the towns won their independence in various
One way was to become a commune, a self-governing town. The merchant
guilds took the lead in acquiring charters of self-government for the towns.
Often a charter had to be won by revolt; in other circumstances it could be
purchased, for a feudal lord was always in need of money. By 1200 the Lombard
towns of northern Italy, as well as many French and Flemish towns, had become
Where royal authority was strong, a town could be favored as
"privileged." In a charter granted to the town by the monarch, the inhabitants
won extensive financial and legal powers. The town was given management of its
own finances and paid its taxes in a lump sum to the king. It was also
generally given the right to elect its own officials. The king was usually
glad to grant such a charter, for it weakened the power of the nobles and won
for the monarch the support of the townspeople.
Founding new towns was still another way in which feudal restrictions
were broken down. Shrewd lords and kings, who recognized the economic value of
having towns in their territories, founded carefully planned centers with
well-designed streets and open squares. As a means of obtaining inhabitants,
they offered many inducements in the form of personal privileges and tax
Interacting with the growth of towns was the decline of serfdom. Many
serfs escaped from the manors and made their way to the towns. After living a
year and a day in the town, a serf was considered a freeman.
The triumph of the townspeople in their struggle for greater
self-government meant that a new class evolved in Europe - a powerful,
independent, and self-assured group, whose interest in trade was to
revolutionize social, economic, and political history. The members of this
class were called burghers and came to be called bourgeoisie. Kings came to
rely more and more on them in combating the power of the feudal lords, and
their economic interest gave rise to an early capitalism. Also associated with
the rise of towns and the bourgeoisie were the decline of serfdom and the
manorial system and the advent of modern society.
A medieval townsman's rank was based on money and goods rather than birth
and land. At the top of the social scale were the princes of trade, the great
merchants and banking families, bearing such names as Medici, Fugger, and
Coeur. Then came the moderately wealthy merchants and below them the artisans
and small shopkeepers. On the lowest level were the unskilled laborers, whose
miserable lot and discontent were destined to continue through the rest of the