Life in a
Life in a Medieval Town
At the fall of the Roman Empire, people had fled the cities and towns which had become a prime target for Barbarians looking to grab quick loot. As law and order broke down, so did trade and most people lived in isolated communities that produced everything they needed. Around the eleventh century (the 1000s), towns were on the rise once again. Around this time Vikings raids had pretty much come to an end. An increase in trade and better farming techniques had come together and were transforming the way Europeans lived.
Fewer wars around this time, meant more security for travelers and merchants. This in turn led to an increase in trade with the Italian city-states which had been trading with the Muslims who in turn were trading with the rest of Asia and Africa.
An increase in trade meant more jobs (especially those found in cities). People began to flock to the cities to try to find higher paying jobs. (If you were a serf that meant actually getting paid). The demand for labor ran the gamut from merchants, builders, craftspeople, all the way to barbers, doctors, and town watchmen.
In the early years of the Dark Ages, European towns and cities were owned by the king, a lord, or the church (just like everything else).
Towns paid their taxes to the sheriff who worked for the lord. As many medieval townsfolk were illiterate, this system was often abused. The tale of Robin Hood and his arch enemy, the Sheriff of Nottingham, tells the tale of abuse of poor people at the hands of greedy lords and kings.
But, by the 1000s, many of the wealthy middle class merchants resented their lesser status and began demanding more freedom. But freedom has its price. Many towns collected money to buy a charter from the king; this piece of paper made them independent entities that could select their own leaders called Burghers (no relation to the sandwich). With a charter in hand the towns could collect their own taxes for the benefit of the town, not some distant lord.
Often, this move to become independent was not a peaceful transition. Many lords were reluctant to give up their towns and the taxes they brought. Riots against high taxes broke out. Take the case of the Bishop of Laon who was lucky enough to own his own town. The Bishop was unlucky enough to have no understanding of taxes and riots. When he raised the taxes too high to pay for his personal debts, the town folk chased him down, found him hiding in a wine barrel, and hacked him to death.
Medieval towns had a few things in common with any modern city. Compared to the countryside, towns were crowded, noisy, dirty, smelly places. However, compared with most modern cities, medieval towns held the monopoly on smelly and dirty. During the Thirteenth Century (1200s) the European population was on the rise. Between 1000 and 1250 every major city doubled and even quadrupled its population. Big cities like Paris jumped from 20,000 souls in 1000 to 250,000 in 1328. London leaped from 60,000 to 100,000.
You can blame it all on better farming techniques. New inventions such as the horse collar, the horseshoe, and the iron plow led to more land being farmed. The windmill, which Europeans borrowed from the Middle East, allowed swampland to be turned into farmland. More farmland meant more food and more food meant more people. Europe was coming out of the Dark Ages fat and happy. But prosperity comes at a price.
Medieval towns rarely were built according to a plan. As more people moved in, new houses and shops would be thrown up next to or above existing ones. Only wealthy merchants could afford stone, so the majority of buildings were made of wood. They were often built so close to one another that as they began to lean over the years, two buildings across the street from one another might actually touch!
Medieval Potty Talk
Medieval towns were almost always located along rivers or coasts for easy access to shipping. Rivers were more than just medieval highways; they also were where the people got their water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and disposing of their sewage. Medieval towns were crowded and disgusting places to live. The good old days of Roman sanitation had long been forgotten and most cities got by with simple ditches or underground sewers that drained directly into the nearest river.
Medieval sanitary laws if you could even call them that, were not much more than telling city-residents that they had to shout “watch out below” three times before emptying their chamber pots into the street below. In the days before indoor toilets it wasn’t an easy task to climb two or three flights of stairs in the middle of the night to do your business. Chamber pots were the way business was done until the 19th century when indoor plumbing became all the rage.
Some enterprising folks found a way to make their night time wee a bit easier by building indoor privies in the outer walls of their homes. These private loos were little more than a hole cut in the floor which dropped onto the alley below.
In Paris, the situation got so bad that some streets were even named for the excrement that collected there. Streets were given names like Rue de Mereduex (to put it politely Crap Street) and Rue de Pipi. Are you grossed out yet? Well, keep reading, there’s more.
Medieval streets would have been a perfect place to film any one of the Saw horror films. Butchers chopped up animals in outdoor stalls, dropping the unwanted parts on the ground to be eaten by flies and rats. The streets in the butcher’s quarters were so filthy that rivers of blood often ran into neighboring parks and even people’s homes! Barbers (who doubled as the city surgeon) did the same thing. They simply dumped their work right in front of their store until the rain or rats carried it away.
Every city resident was supposed to keep the area in front of their homes clean but you can probably guess how many people actually followed the law. City sweepers occasionally would come by every now and then and push all of this garbage into the ditch.! But for the most part street sweeping was left up to nature. When it would rain the collection of waste and refuse would be rinsed into the open ditches and hopefully carried into the nearest river .The same body of water you just got your water to cook supper with. Rivers in Medieval Europe were so polluted that people got sick from drinking from them. Instead, they drank wine at every meal. Even babies got watered down wine.
In Roman times bathing was considered to be a necessity. Every Roman town had a public bath house where men and women would gather to get clean or simply to take a soak in the hot tub. However, many Christian officials condemned public bathing as immoral, even if the sexes were segregated. Nudity was not only sinful but dangerous and medieval doctors taught that diseases were carried through the water and passed on through the pores of the skin. Soon Dark Age Europeans were forgoing bath time altogether. As a rule, the wealthier you were the more you tended to bathe. After all spending day after day in your own stink is no fun. Medieval nobility bathed regularly, about twice a year on average. Some risk takers even bathed once a month. However, these folks were foolishly putting their hygiene over their health— or so, that’s what the church said. More cautious types like Queen Isabella I of Spain (the one who sponsored Christopher Columbus) bathed only twice in their lifetime— when she was born and on her wedding day! The story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170, had an even more foul tale to tell. When his murdered corpse was undressed, an eyewitness was shocked that so many vermin “boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron”. To compensate for the stench, Europe’s nobles would coat themselves in perfume and satchels of flowers. The effect was less than glamorous.
If you were a peasant you spent most of your life doing hard physical labor in the fields. This meant years of sweat and stink that clung to your body. Medieval peasants were the least likely to ever bathe. Instead, they favored using warm water and a rag (and sometimes soap) to wash their hands, face, and body. Ironically, it was the fear of disease that kept Europeans from bathing but it was their lack of hygiene that attracted rats infested with fleas which were literally exploding with the bacterium Yrsenia Pestis, which had made its way to Europe via East Asia in 1349.