Inside the walls: exploring towns in the Middle Ages

Medieval towns were vibrant hubs of activity, housing an array of people from political and spiritual leaders to traders, craftsmen, inn-keepers and brothel owners. Here, Dr Alixe Bovey explores what went on inside city walls.
Medieval writers were unsure about towns. On the one hand, they saw them as vital hubs of economic, cultural, political, administrative and spiritual activity. But on the other, they saw their many dangerous temptations: their taverns and alehouses, gambling dens and brothels. Towns could also be dirty, expensive and riddled with disease. In the 1190s, Richard Devizes wrote of London: 'whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find it in that one city'. However, at around the same time, William FitzStephen praised it as a place of thrilling spectacles, admirable devotion, and exciting pastimes, including skating and football.

Miniature of a view of the Tower of London with London Bridge, from Charles d'Orleans' Poetry

The Tower of London with London Bridge

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City walls

Normally enclosed by protective walls, access to medieval towns was regulated through gates. The Luttrell Psalter includes an image of Constantinople that is based on an English town: surrounded with a curtain wall punctuated with towers and arrow slits, the city is crowded with buildings. At the centre is the tall spire of a church.

Copyright: © British Library

The glamour of the town is suggested by the dancers emerging from one of its gates, watched by admiring ladies. Successful towns were often sited on major roads or waterways, facilitating trade and transport. Bridges were important points of access to towns, and were often themselves embellished with chapels and buildings.

Painting of boats leaving a city by night, from Les Commentaires de César

Boats leaving a city by night

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Miniature of a child falling off London Bridge, from John Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund

Child falling off London Bridge

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London: the largest city in England

Around 1300, the majority of people in Europe lived in the countryside. In England, between 10 and 20 percent of the population lived in towns. Around this time, London's population is estimated to have been 60 - 80,000. Although unimpressive by today's standards (medieval London was something like one percent of today's population), this made it the largest city in England. After the Black Death in 1348 - 50, which killed a third or more of the population, the pace of change quickened. Some towns shrank while others grew rapidly as many peasants relocated to urban centres.

The social scene

Who lived in towns? At the top of the social scale were merchants, lawyers and property owners, who occupied responsible administrative positions. Below them were craftsmen and traders, and at the bottom of the pile were relatively unskilled workers. Then, as now, towns included a mixture of residential and commercial properties, though often these were one and the same: craftsmen's workshops were often on the ground floor, with the family residence upstairs. In many towns, medieval commercial activities have left their mark in streets with names like Shoe Lane, Pie Corner and Apothecary Street. Medieval commercial buildings are relatively rare, but images can sometimes offer a record of what they might have looked like, as seen in the illustration of an apothecary shop in a 13th century French manuscript.

Full-page miniatures of an apothecary shop, from Mattheus Platearius' Circa instans

An apothecary shop

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Religious houses, parish churches and other religious foundations were an important feature of the townscape, and from the 13th century, mendicant friars - whose mission was to preach to the people rather than to live cloistered lives - became central to the spirituality practiced in towns.

Drawing of mendicant friars on columns, from the 'Bible of William of Devon'

Mendicant friars on pillars

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  • Alixe Bovey
  • Alixe Bovey is a medievalist whose research focuses on illuminated manuscripts, pictorial narrative, and the relationship between myth and material culture across historical periods and geographical boundaries. Her career began at the British Library, where she was a curator of manuscripts for four years; she then moved to the School of History at the University of Kent. She is now Head of Research at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

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