Process of Urbanization in Western Europe During the High to Late Middle Ages

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European society in the Middle Ages was predominately rural. The great urban centres of the Roman Empire had either decayed or remained as administrative and religious centres. The societal wealth and power rested within the countryside. The countryside began to experience economic growth in the 11th century. This economic growth would trigger a series of changes to the European societal order in the 12th century. While the majority of the population remained in the countryside, an influx of people migrated from the countryside to towns. A process of urban revival was seen throughout Western Europe. Industries emerged, trade flourished, and the societal structure began to change, leading to a shift in power dynamics. Conflict arose in the 11th century as lay and clerical powers struggled to sustain authority and quarreled over the jurisdiction each possessed. Each of these powers began to test the changes, in the 12th century, in hopes of extending their influence. The following analysis will discuss how the economic growth in the countryside stimulated changes in lay and clerical authority beginning in the 12th century. In order to understand how the lay and clerical powers changed it is essential to understand what ignited the economic growth and the consequences of this growth had on the medieval European society. The economic growth in the countryside occurred due to several factors. Advanced farming techniques, such as the three-field system with the introduction of heavy horse-drawn plows, iron horse shoes and advanced harnessing techniques allowed for peasants to work more efficiently therefore reaping greater harvests. Combined with the use of wind and water mills to grind the grain, peasants would get as much from their harvest as possible, creating large surpluses. The economic growth in the countryside brought surpluses to towns, and with the surplus came people. Saint-Bertin, a late medieval chronicler commented on this process, “first merchants with luxury articles began to surge around the gate; then the wine-sellers came; finally the inn-keepers…. So many houses were built that soon a great city was created.” His commentary clearly demonstrates the process of urbanization. Merchants came to trade, and people came to buy these goods. Towns emerged from centres of political power. Whether that was a lord’s castle, monastery or church, settlements arose around these centres. The most obvious change was an increase in the population. Food became more accessible and people ate a greater variety. Due to an enriched diet, health and fertility improved, which initiated population growth. A higher population translated into serfs having the opportunity to learn and train in the crafts, perusing a scholarly career, or becoming involved in trade since they were no longer needed labouring in the fields. As a result the 12th century experienced a high influx in artisans, merchants, and scholars that may be the result of two factors: the first being the economy grew and consequently the demands for goods and services grew, and there were supplementary people to pursue these occupations. These people found their livelihood in towns. As towns grew, a new class of merchants and artisans emerged known as the bourgeoisie. This class would challenge the current social order, of those who work, pray, and fight. The bourgeoisie did not fit in the traditional social hierarchy and were able to break away from the social hierarchy through establishing guilds. The Southhampton town charter describes the organization of guilds. “In the first place, there shall be elected from the guild merchant, and established, an alderman, a steward, a chaplain, four skevins, and an usher.” From this charter we see a clearly defined hierarchy, which outlines the duties of each member and places the alderman at the top. Craft guilds also began forming at this time. The craft guilds sought the same goals as the merchant guilds, the creation of a...
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