The Creativity and Challenges of Medieval Cities



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CHAPTER 11

The Creativity and Challenges of Medieval Cities

0Instructional Objectives


After reading and studying this chapter, students should be able to discuss the origins of medieval cities and assess their impact on the economy and culture of the Middle Ages. They should be able to describe the evolving role of universities in medieval society. They should be able to discuss the relationship between oral traditions and vernacular literature. They should also be able to connect cathedrals to the ideals and attitudes of medieval people. Finally, they should be able to examine the connection between heresy and the urban environment.

0Chapter Outline0


I0. Towns and Economic Revival0

A0. The Rise of Towns0

10. There are three basic theories explaining the origin of towns.0

a0) They began as boroughs, or fortifications against Viking raids.

b0) They began as settlements outside forts in favorable spots for trade.

c0) They formed around great cathedrals or monasteries.

20. Many towns were once Roman army camps or trading cities.

30. Medieval towns had a number of common characteristics.0

a0) Walls enclosed the town.

b0) Each town had a marketplace.

c0) Each town had a mint to coin money and a court.

d0) Large towns had populations in the tens of thousands.

e0) Townspeople had peasant origins but were very diverse.

B0. Town Liberties and Merchant Guilds0

10. Serfs who lived in a town for one year and a day became free.

20. Town citizens had the right to buy and sell in the town without paying taxes.

30. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries towns developed their own courts, handling cases involving commercial transactions.

40. Merchant guilds and craft guilds were organized.

50. Women in towns were members of and even masters in craft guilds. They participated in many kinds of business, including money lending.

60. Kings and nobles granted the merchant guild oligarchies that ran the town’s freedoms: the rights to hold a court, levy taxes, and so on.

C0. Craft Guilds

10. Towns became centers of production as well as trade.

20. Craft guilds emerged to organize and regulate such production.

30. Each guild set the pattern by which members were trained.

40. The master’s family was integrated into the production process.

50. Craft and merchant guilds acted as systems of social support.

D0. City Life0

10. Maintenance of city walls was probably the towns’ greatest expense.

20. Most of the town was a market.

30. Towns were filthy; waste was just dumped in the street.

40. People of varying social status interacted in towns.

50. Sumptuary laws attempted to clearly delineate social groups.

E0. Servants and the Poor

10. Many urban households hired domestic servants and additional workers to do specific tasks.

20. In some cities, the urban poor were involved craft production.

30. Illegal activities offered another way for people to support themselves.

F0. The Revival of Long-Distance Trade0

10. Long-distance trade was risky due to accident and robbery.

20. Merchants formed partnerships to share risk.

30. Venice dominated trade with the Near East, bringing spices, slaves, silk, and purple textiles into Europe.

40. Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres in Flanders controlled the cloth industry.

50. Wool came into Flanders from England. Wool was the cornerstone of the medieval economy in England.

G0. Business Procedures0

10. The opening of silver mines throughout Europe in the 1160s accelerated development of a cash economy.

20. Business procedures changed as long-distance trade and the cash economy expanded.0

a0) Three types of merchants developed: the sedentary businessman who ran the “home office,” the transporter of goods, and the agent abroad.

b0) Commercial correspondence developed.

c0) Bills of exchange and other complex forms of commercial accounting proliferated.

d0) Merchants of Italian cities led these developments.

e0) The German-dominated Hanseatic League of commercial cities, founded in 1159, led in northern Europe.

f0) Eventually the Hanseatic League guaranteed the debts and contracts of members.

30. A limited supply of metal for the production of money restrained the increased flow of commerce.

40. Christian prohibitions against usury attached a stigma to most merchant activities.

H0. The Commercial Revolution

10. The commercial revolution included a new attitude toward business and money making.

20. Part of this new spirit was a new attitude toward time.

30. Capitalism in the Middle Ages was primarily mercantile capitalism.

40. New commercial wealth was a tax base for kings to exploit.

II0. Medieval Universities0

A0. Origins

10. Medieval universities emerged in the thirteenth century in response to the demand of the new secular states for trained administrators.

20. Cathedral schools in France and municipal schools (founded by businessmen) in Italy developed into universities in the twelfth century.

30. In Italy the University of Bologna specialized in teaching Roman law. The University of Salerno specialized in medicine.

40. The cathedral school of Notre Dame became a center of medieval learning.


B0. Abelard and Heloise

10. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) studied in Paris and became a famous teacher and scholar.

20. His book Sic et Non listed apparently contradictory propositions drawn from the Bible and the writings of church fathers.

30. A History of My Calamities described his academic and private life.

C0. Instruction and Curriculum

10. At Paris and later at Oxford and Cambridge, associations or guilds of professors organized universities.

20. Students at universities were generally considered to be lower-level members of the clergy.

30. Professors developed the scholastic method of inquiry. This involved posing questions, citing authorities on both sides of a given question, and providing a rational explanation for what was believed on faith.

40. Scholasticism rested on the recovery of ancient philosophical texts that had entered Europe in the early twelfth century.

50. The standard method of teaching at the university was the lecture.

60. Examinations were given after three, four, or five years of study.

70. Student life was rowdy and conflict between students and townspeople was common.

D0. Thomas Aquinas and the Teaching of Theology

10. Scholastics collected and organized knowledge as summa or reference books on various topics. One example is Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).

20. Aquinas argued that faith and reason were mutually reinforcing, not contradictory.

30. Aquinas was interested in epistemology.

E0. Teaching the Law

10. Legal scholars attempted to create an all-inclusive system based on logical principles.

20. Jurists were hired by rulers to systematize law codes and write legal treatises.

30. Independent cities created city charters and law codes.

40. Canon law was shaped by the reinvigoration of Roman law.

50. Both Jewish and Christian scholars wrote commentaries on law.

F0. Medical Training

10. Medical studies were based on classical ideas.

20. Health was believed to depend on the balance of four bodily humors.

30. Medical theorists differed over the role of the mother and the father in contraception.

40. Common assumptions about the body became the basis of university medical education.

III0. Vernacular Culture0

A0. Oral Traditions and Entertainment

10. Oral culture played a central role in the lives of medieval people.

20. New papermaking techniques contributed to growth in the production of vernacular documents.

30. Recreation reflected the fact that medieval society was organized for war.

40. Games and sports were common forms of recreation.

50. Dancing was common at religious and family celebrations.

60. Drama emerged as a distinct art form during the High Middle Ages.

B0. Troubadour Poetry0

10. Troubadours were poets in southern France (Provence) who sang their songs in noble courts.

20. The songs of the troubadours were widely imitated in Italy, England, and Germany.

30. The motifs of the troubadours influenced the northern French trouvères.

40. The influence of the troubadours eventually extended to all social classes.

IV0. Architecture and Art

A0. Romanesque Churches and Cathedrals

10. Most churches in the early Middle Ages were made of wood and were quite small.

20. Romanesque churches had arched stone ceilings that required heavy walls to support them. They were massive buildings with small windows.

30. Painted ceilings and walls alleviated the gloomy interiors of Romanesque churches.

40. Sculptured figures decorated the exteriors of Romanesque churches.

B0. Gothic Cathedrals

10. Gothic architecture began with the renovation of the abbey church at St. Denis in the Île-de-France (1137–1144).

20. The new style spread to England, Germany, and Italy.

C0. Organizing and Building

10. Monarchs and nobles contributed money to the creation of cathedrals.

20. A large and diverse group of artisans was needed to build a cathedral.

30. Cathedrals were objects of civic pride. Many inhabitants of a town collaborated in their construction, from bishops to businessmen to the actual artisans.

40. Cathedrals served secular as well as religious purposes.

50. Cathedrals were intended to teach people the doctrines of the church.

60. Cathedrals were connected with many artistic developments, from tapestry making, to theatrical performance, to the early development of singing in harmony and musical notation.

V0. Cities and the Church0

A0. Heretical Groups

10. Heretical movements developed in the most commercialized and urbanized areas of Europe (northern Italy, southern France, Flanders, the lower Rhine valley) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

20. Conservative clergy and rural monastic orders could not address problems of the new, more diverse urban society.

30. Pope Gregory’s reforms, particularly the attack on Nicolaism, encouraged laypeople to judge corrupt priests.

40. The Waldensians in France attacked the sacraments and church hierarchy.

50. The Albigensians or Cathars in southern France rejected the Church altogether.

B0. The Friars

10. In response to heresy, St. Dominic and St. Francis created new monastic orders.

20. Members were friars, not monks.

30. They preached and worked in urban settings.

40. They followed the ideal of apostolic poverty, begging for their material needs.

50. Most members came from the burgher class or the ranks of small property owners and shopkeepers.

60. Initially the Dominicans recruited university graduates while the Franciscans favored men with less education. Both orders ended up with highly educated members who could work in the new, more sophisticated, and literate urban society.

70. Similar women’s orders, such as the Poor Clares, were founded at about the same time.

80. Groups of women seeking to live a religious life came together in Europe’s cities.

C0. The Friars and Papal Power

10. The papacy used friars from the new orders to run the Inquisition, a successful drive to hunt out and extirpate heresy.

20. At the end of the thirteenth century, a violent dispute between the papacy and the kings of England and France damaged the prestige of the pope.

30. In 1294 King Edward I of England and Philip the Fair of France declared war on each other.

40. Both kings taxed the clergy to pay for the war.

50. Pope Boniface VIII decreed that kings did not have the right to tax the clergy, an action that was rejected by both kings.

60. When Boniface attempted to enforce his decree, Philip accused him of heresy and had him arrested.

0Lecture Suggestions0


10. “Town and Gown.” What was the relationship between university students and the people in university towns? What was life like for a medieval student? Sources: H. De Ridder-Symoens, ed., A History of the University in Europe, vol. 1: Universities in the Middle Ages (1991); W. J. Courtenay, Parisian Scholars in the Early Fourteenth Century (1999); R. H. Hilton, English and French Towns in Feudal Society (1992); G. Leff, Paris and Oxford Universities in the 13th and 14th Centuries (1968).

20. “Games Medieval People Played.” How did people from different walks of life entertain themselves in the High Middle Ages? Did a particular sport or pastime reflect one’s social class? How was the medieval tournament a microcosm of medieval society? Sources: I. M. Carter, Sports and Pastimes of the Middle Ages (1988); J. Strutt, Spoils and Pastimes of the People of England (1801); T. McLean, The English at Play in the Middle Ages (1984); J. R. V. Barker, The Tournament in England, 1100 to 1400 (1986).

30. “Sexual Criminality in the Middle Ages.” How did medieval authorities handle cases of rape, abduction, and incest? What were medieval attitudes toward these crimes and toward sexuality in general? Sources: V. Bullough and I. Brundage, Medieval Sexual Practices and the Church (1987); A. Harding, The Law Courts of Medieval England (1973); G. Ruggiero, The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice (1980).

0Using Primary Sources


Read the excerpts from Sic et Non by Peter Abelard (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1120abelard.html). What did Abelard mean by the “questioning spirit”? How might other medieval scholars have responded to his methods? How might the church have responded?

00classroom 0Activities 0


I0. Classroom Discussion Suggestions

A0. What role did alcohol play in the diet of medieval people? Was alcoholism commonplace?

B0. How did the lifestyles of women such as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine differ from those of peasant women?

C0. What medieval legal ideas are still evident in modern Anglo-American law?

D0. What requirements did a student have to meet to earn an undergraduate degree in the Middle Ages?

E0. Why were medical and law schools usually physically separated from the academic area of a medieval university?


II0. Doing History0

A0. How did the form and decoration of gothic cathedrals reflect their purpose and place in medieval society? Have students visit a site that offers plans, drawings, and photographs of nine gothic cathedrals (http://www2.art.utah.edu/cathedral/index.html). Students should examine at least three cathedrals in detail. What do the cathedrals have in common? What are the most important differences between them? In each case, what is the relationship between form, appearance, and function?

B0. What was town government like in medieval England? How did it develop over time? Visit Medieval English Towns (www.trytel.com/~tristan/towns/towns.html), a site that includes resources for the study of the urban environment in medieval England. Students should examine links relating to town origins, town laws, and town officials in their efforts to answer the questions set out above.

III0. Cooperative Learning Activities0

A0. Oral Traditions: The Mystery Play

Have students choose one of the York mystery play. The complete text of all the plays can be found at http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=cme;idno=York. Students should choose one scene to act out. After the performance, lead a discussion of the place and purpose of drama in medieval life.

B0. Heresy and the Inquisition

Divide students into two groups, Albigensians and members of an inquisitorial court. Students assigned to the Albigensians should research the positions and beliefs of this heretical group. Students assigned to be inquisitors should research the activities and practices of the Inquisition. Conduct a mock trial in which the inquisitors question the Albigensians about their beliefs.


0Map Activity0


10. Using the map in the text for consultation, students should list university towns on an outline map of Europe.

20. Using a blank outline map of Europe, have students list the major political entities in Europe.

30. Using Map 11.2 (Trade and Manufacturing) as a reference, answer the following questions.

a0. What was the relationship between urban growth and regional trade patterns?

b0. Which commodities were most important in southern Europe? How about in northern Europe?

0Audiovisual Bibliography0


10. The Medieval Guilds. (21 min. Encyclopedia Britannica Films.)

20. Medieval Theater: The Play of Abraham and Isaac. (26 min. Color. Encyclopedia Britannica Films.)

30. Bruges: The Story of a Medieval City. (59 min. Color. Unicorn Productions-International Films Bureau.)

40. England in the Middle Ages. (Videodisc. Color. 30 min. Britannica Videos.)

50. Venice: Economic Power in the Middle Ages. (Videodisc. Color. 19 min. Britannica Videos.)

60. Music of the Troubadours (Audio CD, 1999)

70. French Troubadour Songs (Audio CD, 2001)

80. University of Oxford, Bodleian Library: Images of Manuscripts (www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/medieval/browse.htm)


0Internet resources0


10. Walking Tour of Assisi (www.wtu.edu/franciscan/packs/tour/assisi/assisi.html)

20. Summa Theologica (www.newadvent.org/summa)

30. University of Cambridge: A Short History (www.cam.ac.uk/cambuniv/pubs/history)

40. Medieval English Towns (www.trytel.com/~tristan/towns/towns.html)

50. Notre Dame Cathedral (www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Notre_Dame_Cathedral.html)

60. Monarchs and Monasteries: Knowledge and Power in Medieval France (www.loc.gov/exhibits/bnf/bnf0003.html)


00001suggested reading


For a bold assessment of the long-term significance of the changes discussed in this chapter, see R. I. Moore, The First European Revolution: 970–1215 (2000). For the economic revival of Europe, H. Pirenne, Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (1956) and M. M. Postan, The Medieval Economy and Society: An Economic History of Britain in the Middle Ages (1975) remain valuable. See also: P. Spufford, Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe (1988); P. Dollinger, The German Hansa, trans. and ed. D. S. Ault and S. H. Steinberg (1970); D. Nicholas, Medieval Flanders (1992), and T. H. Lloyd, England and the German Hanse, 1157–1611: A Study in Their Trade and Commercial Diplomacy (1992).

Students interested in medieval towns and cities should see D. Herlihy, Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The Social History of an Italian Town, 1200–1430 (1967), S. Reynolds, An Introduction to the History of English Medieval Towns (1982), and R. H. Hilton, English and French Towns in Feudal Society (1992). For the evolution, power, and activities of one highly important commercial city, see S. A. Epstein, Genoa and the Genoese, 958–1528 (1996). C. Tilly and W. P. Blockmans, eds., Cities and the Rise of States in Europe, a.d. 1000–1800 (1994), contains valuable articles on cities in Italy, Spain, the German Empire, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries. J. LeGoff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (1980) looks at the broad impact of economic change. M. Mollatt, The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History (186) examines those left behind in economic growth.

On the medieval universities, H. de Ridder-Symoens, ed., A History of the University in Europe, vol. 1: Universities in the Middle Ages (1991), offers up-to-date interpretations by leading scholars. For the beginnings of Scholasticism and humanism, see the essential R. W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Western Europe, vol. 1 (1994). W. J. Courtenay, Parisian Scholars in the Early Fourteenth Century (1999), contains a wealth of information on students and professors. Students interested in the relevance of Scholasticism to capitalism might consult O. Langholm, The Legacy of Scholasticism in Economic Thought: Antecedents of Choice and Power (1998).

For Abelard and Heloise, see the provocative J. Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (1997), which includes an excellent treatment of Abelard’s ethics. D. W. Robertson, Jr., Abélard and Héloise (1972), is highly readable and commonsensical and M. T. Clanchy, Abelard: A Medieval Life (1997) incorporates the most recent international research.


For legal training, see C.M. Radding, The Origins of Medieval Jurisprudence (1988). For medicine, the best place to start is N. Siraisi, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice (1990). R. French, Medicine before Science: The Business of Medicine from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment (2003) looks at the economic and social role of university-trained physicians.

For the development of literacy among laypeople and the formation of a literate mentality, the advanced student should see M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066–1307, 2d ed. (1992) and N. Bradbury, Writing Aloud: Storytelling in Late Medieval England (1998). On troubadour poetry, see the titles by Boase and Wilhelm cited in the Notes section of the textbook, as well as S. Gaunt and S. Kay, eds., The Troubadours: An Introduction (1999), M. R. Menocal, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (1990), M. Bruckner, Songs of the Women Troubadours (2000). For considerations of the debates regarding courtly love, see: ff. Swabey, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Courtly Love and the Troubadours (2004). J. Schultz, Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (2006), examines courtly love from the perspective of the history of sexuality, and M. Wack, Lovesickness in the Middle Ages (1990), provides a fascinating look at love from a medical perspective.

The following studies are all valuable for the evolution and development of the Gothic style: C. M. Radding and W. W. Clark, Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning: Builders and Masters in the Age of Romanesque and Gothic (1992), J. Harvey, The Gothic World (1969) and The Master Builders (1971); P. Frankl, The Gothic (1960); and J. Bony, French Gothic Architecture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (1983). D. Grivot and G. Zarnecki, Gislebertus, Sculptor of Autun (1961), offer the finest appreciation of Romanesque architecture written in English. For the most important cathedral in France, architecturally and politically, see A. Temko, Notre Dame of Paris: The Biography of a Cathedral (1968). J. Gimpel’s two books, The Cathedral Builders (1983) and The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (1977), discuss the mechanical and scientific problems involved in constructing cathedrals.

On the development and suppression of heresy, see: M. Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, 3d ed. (2000) and R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society (1990). For the friars, see: J. Morroman, A History of the Franciscan Order (1968); J. B. Freed, The Friars and German Society in the Thirteenth Century (1975). For what the friars actually preached, see the important and provocative study of J. Hanska, “And the Rich Man Died; and He Was Buried in Hell” (1997). The following works are helpful in understanding the Inquisition and medieval heresy: J. B. Given, Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline and Resistance (1997); E. Peters, Inquisition (1989), and Torture (1985).



The conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and the kings of France and England is well treated in J. R. Strayer, The Reign of Philip the Fair (1980), and M. Prestwich, Edward I (1988), both sound and important biographies.

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