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
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
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
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.