Medieval towns in Britain - daily life
From food to fun, guilds to law and order, what life was like in a medieval town.
Medieval England - daily life in medieval towns
BY DAVID ROSS, EDITOR
A new class emerged during the Middle Ages; the merchant. The growth of trade and the merchant middle class went hand in hand with the growth in towns. Town populations swelled during this period, particularly after the Black Death. Trade routes grew, though roads remained poor and dangerous, so most goods were transported by water.
Towns were built on trade, and the elite of towns were the merchants. Merchant guilds controlled town government, though they often clashed with craft guilds for power. Merchants needed stability for trade, so they supported the king and the establishment of a strong central government against the rule of individual nobles. The king, for his part, encouraged the growth of towns and trade. Town charters became a major source of royal revenue. Eventually the growth of towns and guilds led to the breakdown of the manor-centred feudal society.
Separate from the merchant guilds were the craft guilds, which regulated the quality, working hours and conditions of its members. There were three levels of craftsmen; masters, journeymen, and apprentices. Parents paid a fee to place a boy with a master craftsman as an apprentice. There he received food, lodging (often sleeping under the counter in the shop itself), clothes, and instruction in the craft.
Apprentices, Journeymen, and Masters
All townsmen were free, and this provided some incentive for serfs to run away to the towns. If they could remain there for a year and a day they were considered free and could not be compelled to return to the manor.
Although stone building was encouraged, expense meant that most houses were built of wood up until Tudor times. Then, the flourishing new brick industry and a rapidly falling timber supply swung the tide away from wood as the material of choice for most domestic building. Cooks, barbers, and brewers were heavily regulated because of the risk their fires posed. Their premises had to be whitewashed and plastered inside and out.
Each householder was required to keep a full vessel of water outside his door in summer, due to fire risk. When fires did occur it was every citizen's duty to come running with whatever equipment they had. Often firehooks were used to haul burning thatch off a roof, and also to pull down adjacent buildings to provide a firebreak.
The Town Day
The day officially began with the ringing of the Angelus bell at 4 or 5 o,clock. It announced the first mass of the day and the end of the night watchman's duty. Most shops opened at 6 AM, providing plenty of early morning shopping before the first meal of the day at 9 or 10 AM.
Morning was the active time for markets. Things quieted down after noon, and most shops closed at 3 o'clock. Some kept open until light faded, and others, such as the barbers and blacksmiths, were open until the curfew bell sounded. Foreign merchants were heavily regulated. They had to wait two or more hours before they could enter the market, giving the locals the best of the business.
Markets were noisy, raucous affairs. Merchants had to "cry the wares" as their only means of advertising, and some had to be fined for forcibly grabbing hold of passers-by in their enthusiasm to make a sale.
Saturday was early closing day for shops. Usually noon was the close of business. Sunday, however, the "Lord's day of rest", was not kept as restful as we might think. Some trades were allowed to work after Mass, and some field work was allowed to be done before it. A few places even had the privilege of Sunday markets.
Bells and Criers
Bells were the main medium of telling time and making announcements. A Common Bell was rung to summon civic meetings, courts, and as an alarm in case of fire or attack. The town crier rang a hand bell when he walked throughout the town declaiming news and proclamations. The criers were the main source of news for town dwellers. They also had the task of ringing their bells to solicit prayers in memory of people who had paid for the privilege.
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