Post-classical history

Town Life in the Middle Ages

PEOPLE living in a town in the Middle Ages had to make sure that it could not be easily captured by an enemy. For this reason they often built a heavy wall around it with watch-towers where men were always on guard. Battering-rams and other machines for knocking down a wall could not be used unless they were brought close up to it, and therefore just outside the fortifications of the city a deep ditch was often dug and kept full of water. There were only a few gates, and those were carefully protected. Outside the walls were forests and fields, and every morning the public herdsman drove the oxen of the townspeople to pasture, bringing them back again at night. There were gardens and cultivated fields around the town; and indeed there were many gardens and orchards within the walls. If everything had been kept clean, a town might have been a pleasant, sweet-smelling place; but rubbish was heaped up in front of the doors, and pigs roamed about the streets at their own will. These streets were usually narrow and crooked. There were no pavements, and the upper stories of the houses sometimes projected so far that people living on opposite sides of a street could shake hands from their windows.



The nearer one came to the centre of the town, the closer together were the houses. Merchants usually had shop and home in the same building. The lower part of the front was the shop, and the rear of the house was the home. This was by far the pleasanter part, for it often looked out upon gardens filled with bright flowers.

Besides the merchants, there were the humbler folk, the craftsmen, that is, the carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, and others. Every trade had its apprentices, boys who were bound to remain with some craftsman a certain number of years to learn his business. The master fed and clothed the boy, gave him a home, and taught him. When he had finished his apprenticeship, he became a journeyman, or workman. Of course he was eager to become a master, but before he could do this, he must make a "masterpiece," that is, a piece of work excellent enough to be accepted by the guild or society composed of the men of his trade.



There were guilds of bakers, weavers, coopers, brewers, goldsmiths, carpenters; indeed, every trade had its guild. The guild did a great deal for its members. If one of them became poor or was ill, his guild gave him assistance. If he died in poverty, the guild paid his funeral expenses and aided his family. If a journeyman, a cooper, for instance, came to a strange town, the guild of coopers in that town would find work for him; or, if there was none, they would give him money to pay his way to the next town.

The guild not only helped its members, but saw to it that they did not impose upon the public. If a baker made his loaves too small or a dyer gave short measure of cloth or a maker of spurs gilded old ones and sold them for new, his guild punished him by a fine or by expulsion. The master himself was punished, and not the workman who had, perhaps, done the actual work. In many places men were forbidden by their guilds to carry on their trades after the curfew bell, lest they should not do good work, or should disturb their neighbours, or perhaps set their houses ablaze.

The craft guilds were also religious societies, and each one had its patron saint. They gave altars and painted windows and generous presents of money to the cathedrals. The whole guild often went to church in solemn procession. They also presented what were known as mystery plays, that is, plays showing forth scenes in the Bible. One guild presented the creation of the world, another the flood, another the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and so on.



The presenting of these plays was often very expensive, but it was looked upon as a religious duty. When the morning for the plays had come, the members of the guild met together, and after prayers those who were to act clambered into a clumsy two-story wagon called a pageant, and went to the corner or open square where the play was to be shown. When it was enacted, they moved on to present the same play elsewhere, while another guild acted the second play of the series in the place that they had just left. When the play had been repeated in all the places chosen, the members of the guilds went to their homes, feeling that they had performed a religious duty that would be good for them and for the crowds that had been listening to them.

Another later kind was known as a morality play, in which characters representing the virtues and vices took part. The incidents in these plays were not drawn directly from the Bible, as was the case with the mystery plays. Ultimately this rude acting developed into the great Elizabethan drama.

The merchants, too, had their guilds, and these were very powerful associations. They won a great deal of liberty for the towns; for when a king or noble was in need of money, the rich merchant guilds would say, "We will provide it if you will agree no longer to lay taxes upon our town at your own will." Sometimes the guilds made rather hard bargains. If a king or a nobleman wished to go on a crusade, or if he had been taken prisoner and needed a large sum of money for his ransom, he was ready to give many privileges to the town that would supply him with gold, or even to grant it the right to govern itself in all things. Many a city literally bought its charter with its gold.

These merchant guilds were afterwards called corporations, and from them was gradually developed the Town Council of the present day.

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