The growth of cities transformed feudal society. Kings, nobles and clergy gave more freedom and rights to their subjects. As a result, a new social group appeared: the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie was formed by artisans, traders and bankers. And they did not depend on a feudal lord.
There were differences among the bourgeoisise:
- The high bourgeoisie made up of important traders, merchants and bankers.
- The petty bourgeoisie included master artinsans and small scale traders.
Merchants and artisans controlled a town’s business and trade. They hired workers from the countryside to work for them.
At first, the merchants, artisans, and work- ers who lived in towns were all called burghers. Later the title was used to refer to rich merchants.
The daily life of burghers and their families started with prayers at dawn. The burgher hurried off to the docks and mar- ket to see how his products were selling. Then, he met with his business partners.
The burgher’s wife kept house, managed servants, and cared for children. The family ate two large meals a day—one at ten o’clock in the morning and another at six o’clock in the evening. A typical meal consisted of eel, roast beef, lark pastry, and curded milk. About nine o’clock in the evening, the family went to bed.
Other social group that lived in cities were minorities such as the Jews. Jews worked as doctors, moneyleanders or artisans and lived in separate neighbourhood called the Jewish quarter.
THE URBAN LIFE
By the 1200s, many towns were wealthy and large enough to have their fences replaced by walls and towers. Inside the walls, public buildings of stone and houses of wood were close together. To save even more space, the houses had extra stories that extended over narrow streets.
The crowded conditions often made towns unhealthy places in which to live. Sewers were open, and there was little concern for cleanliness. People threw garbage out of windows onto the streets below. Rats were everywhere.
During the 1300s, diseased rats came to Europe on trading ships from the Middle East. They carried with them a plague called the “Black Death.” This disease swept through Europe, killing millions of people. Experts think that one out of three Europeans died in the plague. To escape it, people fled from the towns and settled in the countryside. Trading, farming, and war came to a temporary halt.
Cities were governed by magistrates who worked under the mayor in the areas of finance, order and justice. Over the time, cities were ruled by the richest families who made a group called the urban patricians.
Under the feudal system, the land on which towns were built was owned by kings, nobles, and bishops. They taxed the people in the towns and charged them fees to use the marketplace. The burghers did not like this or the other restrictions .
Many nobles viewed the rise of towns as a threat to their power. They resented the wealth of the burghers and began to use feudal laws to keep them in their place. The Church was also against the rise of towns. Its leaders feared that the making of profit would interfere with religion.
The burghers, however, resented feudal laws. They thought these laws were not suited to business. The burghers now had wealth and power. Thus, they began to depend less on nobles and bishops. Instead, they developed a sense of loyalty toward their town. They worked together to build schools, hospitals, and churches. They began to demand changes.
In the 1100s, townspeople in northern Italy formed political groups called communes. Their purpose was to work against the nobles and bishops and for the people by establishing local self-government. The Italian communes were successful. Soon, the idea of communes spread to the towns of northern Europe. Some kings and nobles gave the townspeople charters, or documents allowing towns to run their own affairs.
The charters gave the townspeople the right to elect officials to run their towns. A council collected taxes and set charges for merchants who bought and sold goods in the town market. It also repaired streets, formed citizen armies, and ran hospitals, orphanages, and special homes for the poor.
The towns enforced their own laws and set up special courts. To reduce crime, the towns severely punished those who broke the law. Murderers were hanged. Robbers lost a hand or an arm. Those who committed minor crimes, such as disturbing the peace, were whipped or put in the stocks, or a wooden frame with holes in which a person’s feet and hands were locked.