Feudal Europe
Why was the rebirth of the cities?
What was the new social class in city life?

The urban rebirth

Between the 11th and l3th centuries, Europe witnessed the rebirth of cities and of urban life. There are two main reasons for this urban rebirth.

  • Prosperity in agriculture and the increase of the rural population. Part of the rural population moved to the cities to work as craftsmen, in search of a better social and economic situation.

  • The reactivation of trade. Many merchants settled in strategic places on the commercial routes seeking protection.

In some cases, cities that already existed started to grow. In other cases, new cities were founded, near a cast or a monastery or at the crossroads on commercial routes. In the 13th century, the largest cities (Flemish cities and in northern Italy) had populations of as many as 50,000 inhabitants.

Functions and landscape of the cities

Cities had several functions.

  • Religious functions. Many cities were the seat of a bishopric. The priest’s church or cathedral was usually the most important building, although each neighbourhood also had its own parish church.

  • Political functions. Cities were freed from the control of feudal lords and gained liberty. The town hall was in charge of the government of each city and its surrounding territory.

  • Economic functions. Craft production and commerce was concentrated in cities. The market square was the main point for exchanges.

Cities were surrounded by walls. Taxes on the goods people brought into the cities were collected at the gates. The streets were narrow and tortuous. Most of the houses were made of wood. Therefore, fires were a common disaster.

A city in the Middle Ages

Urban society

As a consequence of the rebirth of cities, a new social group emerged, the burghers. This term first referred to the people living in the burgh or commercial and craft neighbourhoods, and later to the inhabitants of a city. In the course of time, great differences between the burghers became obvious.

  • The craftsmen and rich merchants formed a ruling urban class and governed the city.

  • Most of the population was formed by poor merchants and the more modest craftsmen.

  • Below these could be found the poor and marginalised, who did not work and had to beg or even commit a crime in order to survive.

Rural Life                                                                                        Commerce