How did cities operate in medieval times?

How did cities operate in medieval times?

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Modern fiction is often filled with fantasy versions of the Middle Ages, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, and everything in between, but how did the reality of this trope operate?

There obviously would have been farmers, creating and selling produce in markets, and blacksmiths, fixing horses and making armour and weaponry -- but what about everyone else? How did people afford to live? I realise there was no middle-class in those days, but the average person would have still owned a home.

For example, in a 13th century city like Conwy in Wales: What would the average person have done for money who lived within the city walls? How did their version of capitalism operate?

To put it another way, that might be easier to answer:

  • What would children have done with their day?
  • What would wives have done with their day?
  • What would husbands have done with their day?
  • And how would they afford to eat and live?

Life in medieval times was in the way you are asking not much different than it is now. You may want to read The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. In many of the stories he paints a picture of day to day life in Medieval England and you will see it was not too much different than things are now.

To answer some of your specific points:

The middle class: there most certainly was a middle class. In England the middle class included two main types of people: villeins and yeoman. A villein was a tenant farmer who was bound to the land, a serf. A yeoman owned his own land. Most tradespeople, crafters, and technicians were yeomen.

Homes: people did own homes, but they were more simple and smaller than those today. A very common design was a round house with a single room and a thatched roof. The floor was dirt, but was covered with soft rushes, called "thresh". You would sleep on a mattress of straw, or a bed if you were well off. A young person, or a poorer person would just sleep on woven straw mats.

Children: very young children had no clothes, but a blanket, but when they got to be 3 or 4 they might get a tunic, unless their parents were really poor. There was no school so children just ran around and did what they wanted unless they had chores to do or work given by their parents. Once a child was about 6-8 they could work doing sewing and other simple chores, feeding hogs or whatever. Poor families sometimes put their children to work against their will to help earn money to eat. This would result in runaways.

Wives: Some women would be married and do whatever was necessary around the home. Making cloth and clothing consumed a lot of time which kept women busy. Many women would be unattached, being spinsters, free spirits, or widows. Such women would work for a living being, well, spinsters (you guessed it) or knitters. There were usually certain professions set aside for single women, such as ale making. Many women were doctors/herbalists and harlotry was common.

Men: Men did all the sort of work you might expect. "Official" or state-sponsored jobs were somewhat more scarce than they are now, so men often had more off-hand jobs being handymen or what were called "hands", doing menial labor. There were a lot of bums, beggars, and bag ladies, and there was no incarceration of crazy people the way it is now, so anyone with a mental disability just wandered around. They were called "fools".

Eating: It was a little bit harder to get food than it is now, but in the towns there was usually a dole of some kind. Also, you could often find work for food digging ditches or cutting wood. Desperate people could eat worms, nettles, seeds and other such wild food. Churches gave out food, just like they do now. Regular food in England was barley or rye bread. Even a menial laborer could make enough to pay for bread and some extra. Most people had at least a wooden bowl and spoon. A really poor person would eat with their hands. A yeoman would usually have fork, knife and spoon with pottery plates and cups. The table for most people was like what a park bench and table would be today. Chairs would be only for the upper middle class and above. Most people could afford fish or meat at least once a week and fats and suet were traded around to make soups, which most people had every day. A common dish was gruel, which was oats or barley mixed with milk, what we would call "cereal" today.

Your question embodies large amounts of modern fantasy.

Firstly, imagine that nothing can be bought or sold by the vast and overwhelming majority of the population. Coin does not exist or circulate for most people.

There obviously would have been farmers, creating and selling produce in markets

Nope. Farmers are a modern institution related to capitalism and closed field systems. Read Wikipedia's article on the economy of England in the middle ages. Most land then was held as shares of a collective community under sufferance from a lord. Local and regional taxes ate up much of the surplus, which was in directly consumable or stored goods. There was no market. Peasants produced excess for tax, or excess as directly extracted "corvee" labour. Lords made use of rights to restrict oven building, mill building, beer brewing and the like to extract surpluses, largely in direct form.

The occasional leakage of produce to markets was not the primary form in which peasants reproduced themselves. Production specifically for market was uncommon.

but what about everyone else? How did people afford to live? I realise there was no middle-class in those days, but the average person would have still owned a home.

Unlikely. The average person was common and probably female, and so owned nothing. Ownership was usually construed around land or "real property" that was inherited amongst males who controlled large family networks. Urban law slowly developed other concepts of property, but these were limited. The average person moved between vagabondage (being a landless person), illegally settling "forests" or "deserts" (wooded or fenny potentially agricultural land), being a poor crofter or commoner with common rights but no land shares, possessing half a land share, possessing full shares, or multiple shares, enough to hire day labourers. Over generations. Over generations land might bleed out of a male dominated family, or someone might claw a right to settle legally.

The urban population was miniscule, as was the cash economy. The interaction between urban and rural economies occurred through regular taxed markets (often synchronised with circuit courts, or court days, or execution days, or religious feasts), and large festivals that were synchronised. This allowed for sufficient interaction between luxury and day to day consumption goods-all of which were rare and poor.

For example, in a 13th century city like Conwy in Wales: What would the average person have done for money who lived within the city walls? How did their version of capitalism operate?

No capitalism in the 13th century mate. Persons without a licence to practice a skill would live in starvation and penury (often being ejected from free towns or enslaved / brought into bondage). Persons with obvious free rights but no trade would merely starve. A family with a right of trade would have cemented their position generations back, and be relying on traditional trade powers to gain what was socially recognised (and enforced by priests and random social violence) the appropriate prices for their labour. A few families would have concentrated wealth, but this wouldn't be liquid capital, it would be static textiles used for display, or cloths. We know this from the viciousness with which churchmen and nobles forced "sumptuary" laws on rich town dwellers to stop them from wearing hats too big, cloaks with too many folds, or shoes that were too long.

Any wealth would have gone on luxury display to enforce the existing principles of class status and enforcement of "station," on the poor. No capital circulated as such in towns.

To put it another way, that might be easier to answer: What would children have done with their day?

Work, play, pray and potentially starve. Formal education was a limited stream used to reproduce the clergy and a limited pool of state and church employed clerks.

What would wives have done with their day?

Work on the primary production of the household and raised children. As "industry" in the sense of useful labour was entirely handcrafts, wives worked with their husbands, husbands worked with their wives. A licence to trade was a licence for all persons in the house to conduct that trade under the mastery of the chief male.

What would husbands have done with their day?

Same as wives. Also like their wives they would have sought salvation in God's mercy. They would have sought to best display their opulence in power. To subjugate others while protecting their "ancient" (read recently invented) feudal rights.

And how would they afford to eat and live?

Largely through the production of incredibly limited luxury goods, and the circulation of these through systems of account rarely settled with coin. A large number of them would be entirely dependent upon charity, or becoming the bonded member of a powerful household and serving.

And of course the alternative is starving to death, or having near total child mortality and early adult mortality due to disease such that your family dies rather than producing more persons.

You're importing a fantasy you possess onto pre-modern economies. The way forward is by reading the rigorous economic histories, such as the ones cited in Economy of England in the middle ages on wikipedia.

Medieval Times

Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament is a family dinner theater featuring staged medieval-style games, sword-fighting, and jousting. Medieval Times Entertainment, the holding company, is headquartered in Irving, Texas. [1]

There are ten locations: the nine in the United States are built as replica 11th-century castles [2] the tenth, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, is located inside the CNE Government Building. [3] Shows are performed by a cast of about 75 actors and 20 horses in each location.

Inside the Medieval Brothel

What was life like for medieval prostitutes? A case in the German town of Nördlingen reveals a hellish world of exploitation and violence.

In the winter of 1471, the municipal council of Nördlingen in southern Germany got word of a scandal in the town’s public brothel. It prompted a criminal investigation into the conduct of the brothel-keeper, Lienhart Fryermut, and his partner, Barbara Tarschenfeindin. After interrogating all 12 of the prostitutes working in the brothel at the time, the council learned that the brothel’s kitchen maid, a woman named Els von Eystett, had been forced into prostitution and as a result had become pregnant by one of her clients. When Barbara discovered this she had forced Els to swallow an abortifacient drink that she had mixed herself, with the result that Els miscarried a male foetus whom the other women reckoned to have been about 20 weeks old.

After forcing Els back to work only a few days later and swearing her to secrecy, things had returned to normal in the brothel for a couple of weeks. But it was not long until some of the prostitutes began to speak among themselves about what had happened. One, Barbel von Esslingen, had brought a pail of water into Els’ room as she lay in agony and had seen the child’s body laid out on a bench. After Barbara overheard her speaking about what she had seen, she sent Barbel away to work in the public brothel in nearby Ulm. But it was too late to stem gossip about the incident. Some regular clients had even begun to talk about what had happened, wondering aloud how it could be that Els, ‘who had been big, was now so small’.

Things came to a head when two officials from the city council in charge of monitoring the brothel paid a visit. They told the women that rumours of what had happened had reached senior members of the council and that an investigation was imminent. In a furious confrontation, Lienhart burst in on the women while they were eating and delivered a savage beating to Els, while she screamed defiantly back at him that he would have to hack off her arms and legs to keep her quiet. Later, as it finally became clear to Barbara and Lienhart that their cover-up had failed, they approached Els secretly to offer her a bargain.

In exchange for her silence, they would agree to drop the debt she owed them and she would slip away quietly the next day while the women were eating dinner. Els agreed and, when the time came to enact the plan, Barbara sent her into the kitchen to fetch a jug of milk. As Els left the brothel and headed for the city gate, Barbara made a show of asking where she had gone and ordered the women to search the brothel for her. But, as one of the prostitutes, Margrette von Biberach, later testified, Els had already told them all about the secret plan. Even while they joined in the search, ‘all of them knew how things really were’.

The business of brothels

Sitting halfway down the Romantic Road, a stretch of some of Germany’s most well-known tourist landmarks, Nördlingen today is a quiet and prosperous place. Its most distinguishing feature is the wholly intact medieval ring wall that encircles the town, a testament to its past significance in the region. Among other notable events, Nördlingen is associated with two of the bloodiest battles of the Thirty Years War and with a particularly savage witch craze, which made a heroine of one of its citizens, the innkeeper Maria Holl, who withstood 60 sessions of torture without confessing. In 1932, the town would host Adolf Hitler, who gave a speech there several months after losing the presidential election to Paul von Hindenburg.

In the Middle Ages, Nördlingen grew wealthy on the back of the textile trade, fuelling a significant population expansion and placing major demands on the town’s council to provide peace and stability for its citizens. Like many other towns across western Europe, the provision of a public brothel was one part of this equation. In an argument still used today, licensing prostitution and concentrating it where it could be seen and regulated was regarded as a lesser evil than allowing it to flourish unchecked. This rationale was endorsed by no less a figure than St Augustine, whose treatise De ordine noted that ‘if you remove harlots from society, everything will be unsettled on account of lust’. In parts of western Europe where licensed prostitution was the norm – a region that includes southern and central Germany, northern Italy, southern France, the Low Countries and Iberia, though not England – prostitution was thus assumed to provide an outlet for young and unmarried men who might otherwise endanger ‘honourable’ women. In some cities, most notably Florence, prostitution was also assumed to dissuade men from sodomy.

Although there were some regional variations, most German towns that had licensed brothels followed a similar model. The brothel was purchased by the town and leased back to a brothel-keeper (in many places a man, though sometimes a woman), who was responsible for its day-to-day running. The keeper paid a tax to the authorities in return for the right to charge board and lodging to prostitutes living in the brothel and to take one third of the fee they charged to clients. Further income might be generated by selling food and drink. After paying for room and board, prostitutes were able to keep what remained of their earnings, as well as any tips a customer might give them.

Broad acceptance of the social utility of prostitution ensured that it was a highly visible part of late medieval urban life. In many cities the social role of prostitutes extended to civic pageantry, where, as participants in dances, weddings and the entry processions of great rulers, they could be seen as part of the city’s hospitality. The entourage of the Emperor Sigismund supposedly enjoyed the hospitality of brothels opened up by towns on his way to the Council of Constance in 1414, while an anecdote attached to Frederick III saw him greeted at the gates of Nuremberg in 1471 by prostitutes who captured him with a golden chain, only freeing him after the payment of a one florin ransom.

Despite this recognition of their role in society, in comparison with respectable wives and daughters, prostitutes were considered dishonourable and sinful. Increasingly throughout the 1400s, any woman suspected of illicit sex risked being equated to the whore of the brothel and might even find herself forcibly placed there by the authorities. This was not necessarily a one-way journey, though. Women who found themselves in brothels might hope to leave by saving up enough for a dowry that allowed them to marry and ‘turn to honour’. In doing so they might follow the example of one of Christianity’s most powerful symbols of redemption, Mary Magdalene, often portrayed as a prostitute in late medieval sermons.

Like many of those in the Middle Ages who were not part of the social elite, the lives of prostitutes are known to us almost exclusively from accounts given by literate, mostly male observers. As the historian Ruth Mazo Karras has noted, although the concept of whoredom played a major role in policing the sexual behaviour of women at all levels of society, the voices of prostitutes themselves are virtually unknown. The testimony given by the Nördlingen women is therefore unique in offering us a glimpse into the world of late medieval prostitution from the perspectives of prostitutes themselves. What do the Nördlingen women tell us about this world? And what parallels might be drawn between their experiences and those of women working in the sex trade today?


The criminal investigation carried out by the Nördlingen town council proceeded along two primary lines of enquiry. First, there was the alleged abortion of Els von Eystett’s child. Abortion (an act often conflated with infanticide at the time) was a serious crime, which could merit a banishment from the town unlike some other parts of western Europe, it was not yet common in southern Germany to execute those convicted of it. Interestingly, Els herself seems never to have been under suspicion of aborting her child. From the start, the council seems to have accepted the story told by the other women in the brothel, which portrayed her as the innocent party. Most of the details of this narrative were actually supplied by just three of them: Els and two others, Margrette von Biberach and Anna von Ulm. Both women appear to have been special confidantes of Els throughout the traumatic events and described supporting her and comforting her as she lay in agony. Els herself actually testified in the nearby town of Weissenburg, where she had gone after being allowed to leave the brothel in Nördlingen. This necessitated some co-operation between the two sets of authorities, revealed in correspondence attached to the trial record – a testament to the seriousness with which the Nördlingen town council treated the matter.

The second half of the investigation took the form of a general enquiry into the working conditions in the public brothel. Here, the council set out to discover whether and how Lienhart Fryermut had broken the terms of his oath as brothel-keeper, sworn when he began the job in 1469. Such oaths were a common means of regulating brothels in German towns. Because brothel-keeping was such a disreputable occupation, comparable with what the historian Kathy Stuart refers to as the ‘defiled trade’ of the hangman, binding an individual to his duties by an oath sworn to God provided a strong form of regulation that allowed authorities to dismiss easily those who abused their position.

As became clear once the Nördlingen women began to give their testimonies, there was more than enough evidence to suggest that Lienhart had done just this. Unlike the abortion enquiry, in which a small number of key witnesses provided much of the relevant evidence, evidence for this part of the investigation was spread across the testimony of nearly all the women. Their statements show that, although most of them simply answered questions put to them by the council, a number of the women took the chance to offer additional incriminating details about the ways in which they had been exploited and abused by Lienhart and Barbara.

The first to come before the council was Anna von Ulm. Anna began her testimony by stating that ‘the brothel-keepers treat her and the others very harshly’ and that ‘they compel and force the women to earn money at inappropriate times, namely on holy Saturday nights when they should honour Mary, the worthy mother of God, and should avoid such work’. She added to this that she, and almost all of the women, had been sold into the brothel, including one from as far afield as Italy, and were all heavily in debt to Lienhart. She said that he and Barbara ‘force the women to let men come to them, and when they do not want to they are beaten’. In a similar vein, she claimed that ‘when the women have their womanly sickness [menstruation] they are forced to earn them money and to let men come to them’.

Anna then went on to explain how she and the others had got into debt. As soon became clear, Lienhart had subjected them to a range of arbitrary charges that not only wiped out their ability to earn, but ensured that they were trapped by ever-increasing debts, which he used as a pretext to forbid them from leaving his employment. Although this was not strictly illegal – numerous employers in this era imposed restrictions on their workers’ freedom of movement and might confiscate property to prevent them absconding – the sheer scale of Lienhart’s exploitation made this an exceptional case.

His practices included confiscating their tips and forcing them to pay cash gifts at certain times of year, including Whitsun and Christmas. He also sold goods to them at inflated prices. As Anna said, ‘when he had something to sell to them, whether cloth or other things that were worth half a florin or a full florin, he sold it to them for two, three or four’. She also said that the women were made to exchange whatever ‘even’ pennies they had for uneven ones of a presumably lesser value. Upon entry to the brothel they had had their clothing confiscated and pawned to Jewish merchants, which for Anna meant that she was forced ‘to go about miserably and almost naked, having no more than a skirt and no undershirt’, with the further consequence that ‘she can hardly cover herself, and is unwilling to go out among honourable people’.

Those who came after Anna added to the picture. Els von Nürnberg stated that when she first entered the brothel she had given Lienhart a veil with a value of two florins and told the council that ‘for the skirt which she wears, she has to give him money’. Enndlin von Schaffhausen and Adelhait von Sindelfingen both said that they had had their clothes confiscated by Lienhart according to Enndlin, this happened ‘whenever one of the women has good clothes’. When it came to paying for their food and drink, Wÿchselbrünn von Ulm said that Lienhart overcharged the women by providing them with meals for 13 pennies when the same was available elsewhere in town for 12. Chündlin von Augsburg said that wine was sold to the women for a penny more inside the brothel than outside it. Enndlin also described a practice by which Lienhart charged the women double the normal amount of ‘sleeping money’, a fee levied when a customer wanted to stay overnight in the brothel. Margrette von Biberach said that, when she informed the brothel-keeper in advance that she had an overnight customer who subsequently failed to turn up, she was still made to pay the full amount of sleeping money.


On top of these exploitative arrangements were further practices intended to squeeze yet more income from the women. These included supplementary labour, primarily spinning, a task which brothel-keepers in some towns were permitted to demand of prostitutes, although not in Nördlingen. Anna von Ulm reported nevertheless that the women were made either to produce two large spindles per day, or to pay Lienhart four pennies. There were also restrictions on the women’s freedom of movement. Anna also told the council that Lienhart had ‘taken their churchgoing from them’, denying them the chance to hear mass. She also said that he habitually did not let them leave the brothel, with the consequence that they were ‘unable to earn their food’. On the subject of food, she pointed out that the women were usually given disgusting meals and were denied extra portions during menstruation, as was required, and were not given bread and meat during the week.

Some of the women also told the council about the fraudulent ways in which Lienhart deprived them of an income. One practice common in brothels across the region involved depositing all of the money paid by clients into a central strongbox, which was then distributed among the women at the end of the week according to how many clients they had seen. Catherin von Nürnberg said that, when this was done in Nördlingen, she had suspicions that several women were paid less than they had earned, while Margrette von Biberach told the council that she had sometimes seen Barbara deliberately undercount the amount of money contributed by a particular woman, with the result that Lienhart would become angry and tell the woman in question that ‘he has no use for her, and they earn him nothing’.

The consequence of all this was that, in Anna von Ulm’s words: ‘They are all poor women and cannot save money, and the debt grows for each one although they do not know how, and they cannot pay off anything.’ But Lienhart’s regime was not restricted to financial exploitation. The deprivations suffered by the women were made worse by frequent use of violence and intimidation. According to several of them, both Lienhart and Barbara beat the women frequently, often when Lienhart claimed that they had earned less than they should have. Margrette von Biberach said that such violence was arbitrary, since Lienhart ‘hit them more for innocence than for guilt’. At times the violence appears to have a sadistic edge. Many of the women said that Lienhart beat them with a bullwhip, while Wÿchselbrünn von Ulm said that he sometimes used a rod or a belt. To make things worse, Adelhait von Sindelfingen pointed out that Lienhart had even been known to assault customers in the brothel, ‘preventing them from earning’, thus perpetuating a cycle of violence.

Truly hellish

One prevalent image of late medieval prostitution, sometimes repeated in popular culture via fantasy settings, depicts the brothel as a sensuous environment in which good cheer and innocent revelry are the order of the day. There is some evidence to suggest that brothels in fact sought to cultivate this kind of image for themselves by providing luxurious furnishings, a warm oven and the opportunity to eat and drink in the company of women, a setting which aped the ideals of courtly love.

Images like these, however, use the notion of the ‘luxury’ brothel as a sanitised version of prostitution to draw a veil over exploitative working practices and the privileging of male sexuality. In the case of Nördlingen, the women’s testimony indicates that life in a municipal brothel could be truly hellish. In one of several such claims in the case record, Chündlin von Augsburg told the council that ‘she has been in other houses before, but has never seen women kept more harshly or despicably than here’, while Wÿchselbrünn von Ulm claimed that ‘the women are not kept here as they are elsewhere’. Catherin von Nürnberg seems to have had much the same impression, stating that the women’s treatment in Nördlingen ‘exceedingly harsh’.

Like all exceptional incidents, it is important to question how representative a single case can be. It is possible that the women exaggerated the scale of abuse – or even lied about it – to secure more favourable working conditions. But it is also striking how readily they seem to have been believed by their interrogators. As dishonourable women, the testimony of prostitutes ordinarily counted for very little in a legal setting and yet the council had no difficulty in accepting their accounts over those of Barbara and Lienhart. At the conclusion of the investigation both were dismissed from their posts and banished from the city forever. In Barbara’s case the council took the additional step of branding her across the forehead for her part in aborting Els von Eystett’s child.

It was the abortion, ultimately, which made this such an extreme case. Financial exploitation and violence were common enough in municipal brothels, but the forced abortion of a prostitute’s child – as the council evidently came to see it – was an act of brutality well beyond the norm. It was this act which also produced some of the most distinctive parts of the women’s testimony. In both of their statements, Anna von Ulm and Margrette von Biberach describe acting as confidantes to Els in the aftermath of her miscarriage. They told the council how Els had wept bitterly, saying that the sight of Barbara had filled her heart with misery and that she had ‘taken my child from me and killed my flesh and blood’.

Els perceived Barbara’s actions in the wider context of abuse and exploitation, by which Lienhart claimed virtual ownership of their bodies and their capacity to earn. Viewed in this way, the forced abortion of Els’ child can be seen as an instrumental act of terror, one which made clear that the brothel-keepers had absolute control over the women’s bodies.

But, if the record shows evidence of trauma, it also communicates the women’s defiance. Els’ own determination to speak out is manifested in the descriptions of her facing down Lienhart. And when their day in court finally came, the evidence provided by the Nördlingen women was enough to prompt the council to take action against Lienhart and Barbara.

In the year following the investigation, the city council drew up a new set of regulations for Nördlingen’s brothel which forbade many of the exploitative financial arrangements that had made prisoners of most of the women working there. Unlike most brothel regulations used by towns in this era, the rules also included an explicit clause requiring a given woman working in the brothel to report to the council immediately any kind of abuse or breach of the rules so that corrective action could be taken – a further sign of the impact made by those who testified in 1471.

Beyond cliché

It is tempting to think of the events described here as part of a depressingly familiar picture. Exploitative working conditions, violence and danger are often thought to accompany prostitution, even in regulated and thus theoretically safer forms of commercial sex. A modern observer of prostitution might recognise in Nördlingen’s brothel a certain model of prostitution catering for low status clients, designed to keep costs low and drive up profits by exploiting its workers. Such a response also seems to affirm the old cliché of prostitution as the ‘oldest profession’ – an unchanging and ever-present phenomenon in human society.

But this cliché is not a harmless one. Thinking about prostitution in this manner is not merely ahistorical, blinding us to what was distinctive and local about the conditions in a place like 15th-century Nördlingen it also obscures the individuality of the women involved. As the historian Judith Walkowitz has argued, it is important that we regard prostitutes themselves as complex individuals, whose experiences and life stories are distinctive and worthy of hearing. Prostitutes are not merely ciphers of a larger historical trend this is difficult to deny, whatever one’s own position on prostitution as a social and economic phenomenon.

We know little else about the women who worked in Nördlingen’s brothel in the years after the 1471-2 investigation. A second, smaller collection of judicial records suggest that by the early 1500s another brothel-keeper by the name of Bartholome Seckler was in trouble with the council for exploiting the women working for him. In any case, it was only a few decades until the sea change of the Reformation saw municipal brothels swept away en masse across southern German towns, as civic authorities grew increasingly uneasy about the moral compromise required to sustain them. By the mid-16th century an institution that had been characteristic of late medieval urban life had vanished, one into which the testimony of the Nördlingen women offers a brief yet vital glimpse.

Jamie Page is a research fellow at the University of Tübingen. He is writing a book on prostitution and subjectivity in late medieval Germany.

Maps of the discoveries

Progress in other technologies such as navigation, ship design and construction, instruments for observation and astronomy, and general use of the compass tended continuously to improve existing map information, as well as to encourage further exploration and discovery. Accordingly, geographic knowledge was profoundly increased during the 15th and 16th centuries. The great discoveries of Columbus, da Gama, Vespucci, Cabot, Magellan, and others gradually transformed the world maps of those days. “Modern” maps were added to later editions of Ptolemy. The earliest was a map of northern Europe drawn at Rome in 1427 by Claudius Claussön Swart, a Danish geographer. Cardinal Nicholas Krebs drew the first modern map of Germany, engraved in 1491. Martin Waldseemüller of St. Dié prepared an edition with more than 20 modern maps in 1513. Maps showing new discoveries and information were at last transcending the classical treatises of Ptolemy.

The most important aspect of postmedieval maps was their increasing accuracy, made possible by continuing exploration. Another significant characteristic was a trend toward artistic and colourful rendition, for the maps still had many open areas in which the artist could indulge his imagination. The cartouche, or title block, became more and more elaborate, amounting to a small work of art. Many of the map editions of this age have become collector’s items. The first map printings were made from woodcuts. Later they were engraved on copper, a process that made it possible to reproduce much finer lines. The finished plates were inked and wiped, leaving ink in the cut lines. Dampened paper was then pressed on the plate and into the engraved line work, resulting in very fine impressions. The process remained the basis of fine map reproduction until the comparatively recent advent of photolithography.

The Cosmographiae, textbooks of geography, astronomy, history, and natural sciences, all illustrated with maps and figures, first appeared in the 16th century. One of the earliest and best known was that of Petrus Apianus in 1524, the popularity of which extended to 15 more editions. That of Sebastian Münster, published in 1544, was larger and remained authoritative and in demand until the end of the century, reflecting the general eagerness of the times for learning, especially geography.

The foremost cartographer of the age of discovery was Gerhard Kremer, known as Gerardus Mercator, of Flanders. Well educated and a student of Gemma Frisius of Leuven (Louvain), a noted cosmographer, he became a maker of globes and maps. His map of Europe, published in 1554, and his development of the projection that bears his name made him famous. The Mercator projection solved an age-old problem of navigators, enabling them to plot bearings as straight lines.

Other well-known and productive cartographers of the Dutch-Flemish school are Abraham Ortelius, who prepared the first modern world atlas in 1570 Gerard (and his son Cornelis) de Jode and Jadocus Hondius. Early Dutch maps were among the best for artistic expression, composition, and rendering. Juan de la Cosa, the owner of Columbus’ flagship, Santa María, in 1500 produced a map recording Columbus’ discoveries, the landfall of Cabral in Brazil, Cabot’s voyage to Canada, and da Gama’s route to India. The first map showing North and South America clearly separated from Asia was produced in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller. An immense map, 4 1 /2 by 8 feet (1.4 by 2.4 metres), printed in 12 sheets, it is probably the first map on which the name America appeared, indicating that Waldseemüller was impressed by the account written by the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci.

Evolution of Urban Form

Greek cities did not follow a single pattern. Cities growing slowly from old villages often had an irregular, organic form, adapting gradually to the accidents of topography and history. Colonial cities, however, were planned prior to settlement using the grid system. The grid is easy to lay out, easy to comprehend, and divides urban land into uniform rectangular lots suitable for development.

The Romans engaged in extensive city-building activities as they consolidated their empire. Rome itself displayed the informal complexity created by centuries of organic growth, although particular temple and public districts were highly planned. In contrast, the Roman military and colonial towns were laid out in a variation of the grid. Many European cities, like London and Paris, sprang from these Roman origins.

We usually associate medieval cities with narrow winding streets converging on a market square with a cathedral and city hall. Many cities of this period display this pattern, the product of thousands of incremental additions to the urban fabric. However, new towns seeded throughout undeveloped regions of Europe were based upon the familiar grid. In either case, large encircling walls were built for defense against marauding armies new walls enclosing more land were built as the city expanded and outgrew its former container.

During the Renaissance, architects began to systematically study the shaping of urban space, as though the city itself were a piece of architecture that could be given an aesthetically pleasing and functional order. Many of the great public spaces of Rome and other Italian cities date from this era. Parts of old cities were rebuilt to create elegant squares, long street vistas, and symmetrical building arrangements. Responding to advances in firearms during the fifteenth century, new city walls were designed with large earthworks to deflect artillery, and star-shaped points to provide defenders with sweeping lines of fire. Spanish colonial cities in the New World were built according to rules codified in the Laws of the Indies of 1573, specifying an orderly grid of streets with a central plaza, defensive wall, and uniform building style.

We associate the baroque city with the emergence of great nation-states between 1600 and 1750. Ambitious monarchs constructed new palaces, courts, and bureaucratic offices. The grand scale was sought in urban public spaces: long avenues, radial street networks, monumental squares, geometric parks and gardens. Versailles is a clear expression of this city-building model Washington, D.C. is an example from the United States. Baroque principles of urban design were used by Baron Haussmann in his celebrated restructuring of Paris between 1853 and 1870. Haussmann carved broad new thoroughfares through the tangled web of old Parisian streets, linking major subcenters of the city with one another in a pattern which has served as a model for many other modernization plans.

Toward the latter half of the eighteenth century, particularly in America, the city as a setting for commerce assumed primacy. The buildings of the bourgeoisie expand along with their owners' prosperity: banks, office buildings, warehouses, hotels, and small factories. New towns founded during this period were conceived as commercial enterprises, and the neutral grid was the most effective means to divide land up into parcels for sale. The city became a checkerboard on which players speculated on shifting land values. No longer would religious, political, and cultural imperatives shape urban development rather, the market would be allowed to determine the pattern of urban growth. New York, Philadelphia, and Boston around 1920 exemplify the commercial city of this era, with their bustling, mixed-use waterfront districts.

Middle Ages Hygiene

Middle Ages Hygiene - Life in the Middle Ages - History of Middle Ages Hygiene - Information about Middle Ages Hygiene - Middle Ages Hygiene Facts - Middle Ages Hygiene Info - Middle Ages era - Middle Ages Life - Middle Ages Times - Life - Middle Ages Hygiene - Medieval - Mideval - Middle Ages Hygiene History - Information about Middle Ages Hygiene - Middle Ages Hygiene Facts - Middle Ages Hygiene Info - Middle Ages era - Middle Ages Life - Middle Ages Times - Information - Facts - Dark Ages - Medieval - Mideval - Feudal system - Manors - Middle Ages Times - Information - Facts - Dark Ages - Medieval - Mideval - Feudal system - Manors - Middle Ages Hygiene - Written By Linda Alchin

Medieval Europe: Economic History

The economy of Medieval Europe was based primarily on farming, but as time went by trade and industry became more important, towns grew in number and size, and merchants became more important.



Like all pre-industrial societies, medieval Europe had a predominantly agricultural economy. The basic economic unit was the manor, managed by its lord and his officials. This was, in the early Middle Ages especially, a largely self-sufficient farming estate, with its peasant inhabitants growing their own crops, keeping their own cattle, making their own bread, cheese, beer or wine, and as far as possible making and repairing their own equipment, clothes, cottages, furniture and all the necessities of life.

Surplus produce was sold at the nearest market town, where equipment which could not be made or maintained in the manor workshops, or luxuries unavailable locally, could be purchased. Here craftsmen and shopkeepers such as cobblers, tailors, costermongers, tinkers, smiths and others plied their trades.

Most industry in medieval Europe was carried out on a very small scale and was closely related to farming, either processing its produce or servicing its needs. Much of this was carried out within rural villages rather than in towns. Brewing, milling, baking bread, cheese-making, spinning, weaving, making clothes, tanning leather and making shoes, belts, woodworking, smithying and building and maintaining cottages, barns and other buildings, all were done by the villagers themselves within their own households. Some of this work required skilled specialists, but even these had their own field strips which they worked for much of their time.

Examples of large-scale industrial units were the salt-mines of central Europe, stone quarries in various places, and shipbuilding, especially in the larger ports. At Venice, the Arsenal was a huge complex of shipbuilding and armaments manufacture, employing thousands of workers.


As in so much else, so for trade: the early medieval period on Europe was a shadow of what had come before under the Roman Empire. In the centuries after the fall of the Roman empire in the west, long-distance trade routes shrank to a shadow of what they had been. The great Roman roads deteriorated over time, making overland transport difficult and expensive. Towns shrank, and came to serve a more local area than in Roman times. Traders and craftsmen mainly serviced the needs of the local rural populations (including local lords).

Trade in luxury goods between different parts of Europe never completely disappeared, and coinage survived the fall of the empire, though was much rarer than before. Most long-distance trade goods from within and beyond Europe, such as in amber, high quality ceramics, textiles, wines, furs, honey, walrus ivory, spices, gold, slaves and elephant ivory, was carried in the small sailing ships of the day. Trade by sea was much cheaper than by land (and would be until the coming of railways in the 19th century). The coasts and rivers of Europe were the main thoroughfares of the time, and the North Sea, and even more, the Mediterranean Sea, were the main thoroughfares for international commerce.

Trade in the Mediterranean

Trade in the Mediterranean seems to have died down gradually after the fourth century, until in the seventh and eighth centuries there was an abrupt downturn. This was probably associated with the Arab take-over of the Middle East and North Africa, which turned the Mediterranean into a hostile zone for trade. Arab pirates dominated the seas until the 11th century, when the Italian cities of Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi and Venice began aggressively capturing pirate bases and reclaiming the seas for trade. The Crusades completed this process so that by the end of the 12th century Mediterranean trade and travel (even by Muslim pilgrims) was largely in European (mostly Italian) holds.

The north Italian city-states went on to plant trading colonies on the islands and coasts of the Mediterranean, including in Syria and Palestine, the Crimea in the Black Sea, and in Sardinia and Corsica. They had their own merchant quarters in the major cities of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Cairo. Venice in particular acquired a maritime empire which included parts of Greece, islands in the Adriatic and the Aegean, the large islands of Crete and Cyprus, and many towns along the Dalmatian coast.

Trade in the North Sea and Baltic

The North Sea had for millennia been home to coastal shipping, on a more local scale than in the Mediterranean. After the shock of the first Viking raids in the 8th and 9th centuries, new trade routes opened up, with tentacles stretching out across Russia and eastern Europe to the Black Sea and Middle East. Ireland, Scotland, northern England and Iceland were drawn more into the trading networks of the region, and northern European ships traded westward along the coasts of Europe, down to and into the Mediterranean.

The North Sea and Baltic ports of northern Europe became flourishing centres of commerce, and from the mid-12th century their commercial power was boosted by the foundation of the Hanseatic League. This was primarily a commercial organisation set up to protect and promote the economic interests of the member towns, and, centred on the north German port of Lubeck, it included towns in the Baltic and the North Sea stretching from Russia to England.

In all European waters medieval cargos were carried in stout “round ships”, or “cogs” – deep-drafted, wide-beamed vessels which held the sea well and had deep, capacious holds in which to carry as much cargo as possible. The exception was with the Venetians, who used galleys (fast oared vessels, armed for war) for high values cargos and where speed was an advantage (for example on trade routes between the Mediterranean and northern waters).

The recovery of the European economy

From 11th century, more stable conditions began to prevail in western Europe. Population began to increase, the volume of trade expanded, and towns in many parts of Europe multiplied in number and grew in size. On the North Sea coast a particularly dense network of trading towns emerged in Flanders and in northern Italy an even greater concentration of large urban centres developed. Cities such as Venice, Genoa, Milan and Florence grew wealthy on the growing trade handled by their merchants. Much of this went north-west, up the Po and Rhone valleys into central and northern France, where the trade routes linked up with those coming south west from Flanders and the North Sea. International trade fairs in the towns of Champaign, in north-east France, became a regular feature of the international trading scene where merchants from Italy and Flanders dealt directly with one another.

The rise of banking

The growth of trade led to the rise of banking. At first, banking was in the hands of Jewish moneylenders, who were able to use their links with Jewish communities throughout Europe and the Middle East to handle the money needed for international trade. Given the strategic place of north Italy in international trade, it is no surprise that banking networks tended to be based in northern Italian cities (the word “bank” derives from the Italian word for the tables at which the bankers sat in the market place). In the 13th century indigenous Italian banking houses grew up, with agencies as far afield as London and Paris. The financial centre of London became known as Lombard Street (Lombardy is another name for north Italy).

The Jewish and Italian bankers of medieval Europe pioneered financial instruments which would be vital to the rise of modern global commerce. Limited liability companies, stocks and shares, bills of exchange and letters of credit all developed at this time (although it is quite possible that some or all of these were based on earlier Arabic practices).

Spread of the market economy

The expansion of trade drew more and more rural communities into the market economy, and links between countryside and towns grew stronger. Manors lost a large measure of their self-sufficiency as they participated more in the money economy. These developments stimulated the expansion of towns, of merchant communities, and of coinage.

The Black Death, after great initial disruption, accelerated the spread of the markets in the longer term by creating a shortage of labour and thus boosting the purchasing power of both urban and rural workers. In proportion to the rest of the economy, towns and cities rose in size and influence – indeed many cities had regained their pre-plague populations by 1400. All over western Europe merchants became increasingly wealthy, and politically more powerful. Meanwhile the countryside languished, in levels of population if not in prosperity. In those areas were the influence of large towns and their trade was strongest, in southern England, Flanders and northern Italy, serfdom began to die out.

How Castles Work

What happens when an invading army entered a territory and laid siege to its castle? Let's look at siege methods and how the castle's defenders could counter it.

Surround and starve

The invading army surrounded the castle and cut off its supplies of food and water with the hope of starving the defenders. In an effort to spread disease among the defenders, the invaders could use their catapults to send dead or diseased animal and human bodies over the castle walls. They could also loft fiery projectiles to wreak havoc inside the castle. This siege method was actually preferred because the invading army might negotiate the castle's surrender with minimal casualties. But it took months to years to work, and the invading army had to be very well supplied with food and water for the duration of the siege.

If they had time to prepare, the defenders could outlast the siege. They usually brought supplies and people from the surrounding countryside into the castle. Most castles had their own water supplies for this situation. Also, the defenders would usually burn the surrounding countryside so the invading army could not forage it for supplies. Often, the outcome of the siege depended upon whether the invading army or the defending army received reinforcements first.

Scale the walls

The invaders would set huge scaling ladders against the castle's outer curtain wall. Invading soldiers would climb the ladders to gain access to the castle. However, the climbers were vulnerable to arrow fire and objects thrown at them from the battlements on the castle walls. Defenders could also push the ladders off the walls.

Alternatively, the invaders built large wooden siege towers and filled them with soldiers. Other soldiers would wheel the towers to the base of the curtain wall. Soldiers in the top of the tower would lower a plank, storm across it onto the battlements and hope to outnumber the defenders. Siege towers provided cover for the invading soldiers, but they were large and heavy. The invaders were vulnerable as they stormed across the plank single-file. Also, the defenders could set the wooden towers ablaze with flaming arrows.

Ram the doors

If an invading army could break down the castle gate, they could enter the castle relatively easily.So they'd use battering rams (large wooden logs) to pound against the gate (or sometimes the castle walls) and eventually break it. Some battering rams were covered to shield the invading soldiers from the defenders' arrow fire and thrown objects. Sometimes, the wooden castle gates were set on fire to weaken them.

To defend against battering rams, defenders would fire arrows (sometimes flaming). They would often lower soft, padded curtains or wooden walls to lessen the impact of the battering rams. Finally, they could brace the castle doors or gates to withstand the forces of the blows.

And as we mentioned, castle gates had murder holes and arrow loops to help pick off invaders who breached the gate.

Bring down the walls

If an invading army could create a breach in a wall, they could enter the castle in a less defended place. Invaders smashed the walls with battering rams and launched heavy stone projectiles and flaming projectiles at and over the walls. They used catapults, trebuchets (heavy sling weapons) and ballistae (large mounted crossbows).

Another way to bring down castle walls was to mine under them. The invading army would dig tunnels under the castle walls and brace them with timber supports. Once they dug the tunnel far enough to the other side, they would set the tunnel on fire. The timber supports would be destroyed, and the wall above the tunnel would collapse. But defenders could counter by digging under the invading army's tunnel before it reached the wall.

Sieges usually combined all of these tactics. They were expensive, exhausting and time-consuming, but were often necessary to take control of a castle and its territory.

The 2005 movie "Kingdom of Heaven" accurately depicts siege techniques during the segment on the siege of Jerusalem during the crusades.

How Did People in the Middle Ages Get Rid of Human Waste?

The idea that people emptied chamberpots out windows into the street is one of the images of the past that has been taught to generations of school children. It’s usually said to have been done in the Middle Ages, and it’s an image that has stuck with many people, particularly because we find it so disgusting. Unfortunately, like many popular ideas about the Middle Ages, it’s largely nonsense.

People in the Middle Ages were no less sensitive to foul odors or disgusted by human waste than we are. They also did not understand exactly how human waste could spread disease, but they knew it did—they just thought it was something to do with its odors. So medieval towns and cities actually had a lot of ordinances and laws to do with waste disposal, latrines, and toilets. In medieval London, for example, people were responsible for the upkeep and cleanliness of the street outside their houses. The fines that could be imposed on them if they didn’t do this could be extremely onerous. One account talks of an outraged mob badly beating a stranger who littered their street with the skin of a smoked fish, since they didn’t want to have to pay the heavy fine for his laziness. In an environment like that, people are hardly going to be dumping buckets of excrement out of their windows.

Larger houses had enclosed latrines attached to or behind the home, which emptied into deep cesspits. These were called a “jakes” or a “gong,” and the men who were employed to undertake the foul-smelling task of emptying these pits were called “gongfermours” or “gong farmers.” Not surprisingly, these men were well-paid, and the gongfermours of medieval London usually ended their day with a much-needed dip in the River Thames.

Smaller residences made do with a bucket or “close stool” over a basin, either of which was emptied daily. They were usually carried to one of the streams that emptied into the nearest river and emptied into the water. This made some of these streams, like the Fleet, rather foul-smelling and gave one in the city of Exeter the lyrical name of “the Shitbrook.” There were also public latrines maintained by the city of London, like the large communal municipal latrines on London Bridge that emptied into the river.

So like most things “everyone knows” about the Middle Ages, this one is in the same category as cumbersome heavy armor, the belief in a flat Earth, and medieval people eating rotten meat covered in spices—it’s a myth.

City gates were traditionally built to provide a point of controlled access to and departure from a walled city for people, vehicles, goods and animals. Depending on their historical context they filled functions relating to defense, security, health, trade, taxation, and representation, and were correspondingly staffed by military or municipal authorities. The city gate was also commonly used to display diverse kinds of public information such as announcements, tax and toll schedules, standards of local measures, and legal texts. It could be heavily fortified, ornamented with heraldic shields, sculpture or inscriptions, or used as a location for warning or intimidation, for example by displaying the heads of beheaded criminals or public enemies.

City gates, in one form or another, can be found across the world in cities dating back to ancient times to around the 19th century. Many cities would close their gates after a certain curfew each night, for example a bigger one like Prague or a smaller one like Flensburg, in the north of Germany.

With increased stability and freedom, many walled cities removed such fortifications as city gates, although many still survive albeit for historic interest rather than security. Many surviving gates have been heavily restored, rebuilt or new ones created to add to the appearance of a city, such as Bab Bou Jalous in Fes. With increased levels of traffic, city gates have come under threat in the past for impeding the flow of traffic, such as Temple Bar in London which was removed in the 19th century.


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