International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 31 December 2017  
Unit 2 - Lesson 1 - The development of towns
'It is not the consciousness of man that determines his social being, but rather, his social being that determines his consciousness.' Karl Marx.

In this unit we are gong to examine one of the most important questions in history. Why does change happen? What causes societies to progress and develop? To what extent is change the result of conscious, deliberate human action and to what extent is it due to forces beyond the control of individuals. The 19th century German philosopher and revolutionary Karl Marx, spent most of life explaining why feudalism was replaced by the modern 'capitalist' world. He argued that fundamental economic changes were the key to understanding historical change; that our ideas are largely determined by the age in which we live. He once put it very simply:

‘Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.’  
Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy 1847

In this unit, we are going to explore how the new ideas of the Renaissance and Reformation changed our world absolutely. But we are also going to recognise, that these new ideas were borne out of new ways of living; a result of economic and social forces that were beyond the control of any individual.

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The development of towns

There were very few large towns in medieval Europe. Most were no bigger than a modern village with a population of between 2000 and 10,000. In the 13th century, the largest cities had populations of as many as 50,000 inhabitants.

Towns grew up for different reasons and had different functions as a consequence. Some had religious functions. The church or cathedral was usually the most important building. Other towns had political functions. Towns 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. Towns also had economic functions. Craft production and commerce was concentrated in cities. The market square was the main point for exchanges. These towns had to be safe. Merchants would not come unless they felt sure their goods were safe. So the lords built wooden fences or walls around, them. At night, the gates were locked to stop foreigners (outsiders) from getting in. In towns, everyone was free. Runaway villeins who stayed there for a year and a day became free. Below left a map of medieval Basel (click to enlarge.) and right Gate of Spalen, one of three remaining medieval town gates in Basel.

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The Guilds

There were no factories in the Middle Ages. Craftspeople set up stalls outside their own homes or used their front room. They made goods in full view of the public. Above the stall they hung a sign so everyone could tell what they sold. In time, these craftspeople organized themselves into guilds.

There were two kinds of guilds: merchant and craft. The merchant guild ensured a monopoly of trade within a given locality. All foreign merchants were supervised closely and made to pay tolls. Disputes among merchants were settled at the guild court according to its own legal code. As towns developed guilds started  to be formed by members of the same craft. These were craft guilds. There was one guild for each trade. Only skilled workers could join. The guild made sure that their products were good quality and that members charged honest prices.

Each year, the guild chose some of its members as 'searchers'. Their job was to visit traders to make sure the rules were obeyed. They checked scales; they tasted food; they inspected the work. Members whose work was poor were often fined. The guild could also force them to do the work again. Once in a while, it actually expelled someone. This meant they could no longer trade in the town. The government did not help the old and sick, so the guild looked after its members when they were sick. They helped the relatives of dead craftspeople. They also gave money to the church and the town. Guilds became very wealthy and through their involvement in the politics of the town, very powerful. (Below the guild buildings in the Grand Place in Brussels, just to the right is where Marx wrote his most famous work, The Communist Manifesto.)

The youngest guild members were the apprentices. These were boys or girls, aged about twelve, who wanted to learn a trade. Their parents made an agreement with a master craftsman (or crafts woman) who would teach them. Usually, they paid the master for this. The agreement was written down on a piece of paper which was then cut up. One piece was given to each side. If, in the future, there was any argument about it, they simply put the two bits together to prove the agreement had been made. The apprentice went to live with the master for between 4 and 14 years.  The master promised that he or she would teach the young person the trade. They also had to look after the apprentice; food and clothing were provided; and the apprentice was taught how to behave. In return, the apprentice promised to work hard and not to give away any of the employer's secrets. The young person could not go to an inn. Usually, they were not allowed to get married either.

When the time was up, the apprentice often went on working for the master. Now the young person received a daily wage, so he or she was called a journeyman (from the word journée, meaning 'a day'). Journeymen were free to work for a different master. Earnings were carefully saved up, ready for the day when they could set up their own business. Before this happened, the guild set a test. Journeymen had to produce a 'masterpiece'. This was one piece of work to show that they were fit to open their own shop. If they passed, they, too, became masters of their craft. Only guild members could sell inside the town, except on market days. People came from far and wide to sell goods at the market. Even more people, including foreign merchants, turned up for the annual fair. This was usually held after the harvest, when people could afford to buy.

The growth of towns.

The number and size of towns grew significantly in the later middle ages. Part of the reason was the growth in trade and another was the general population growth, but just as important was the attitude of those who benefitted from this growth. For the townspeople, a bigger town meant a bigger market, which meant more income. In order to hold a market  and to be able to raise their own taxes, townspeople needed to receive a charter from the landowner. For kings, lords and bishops who owned the land, selling a charter to the town's citizens generated a healthy income.  Bartlett cites the instance of Stratford upon Avon in England. It was initially a small hamlet belonging in the Bishop of Worcester. Then in 1196 a law created a borough with tax raising powers. Within 50 years Stratford was a market town with a population of 1,000, with artisans and craftsmen serving the surrounding area. The rents alone brought the Bishop £12 a year which was considerably more than he could have obtained from the same area as farmland. But although the Bishop was getting richer, so were the leading townspeople and with this wealth came increasing political independence.



The increasing independence of medieval towns was most apparent in the rich cities of northern Italy and Flanders (modern day Belgium and Holland).  Here political leaders and leaders of the guilds exercised increasing power, independent of feudal overlords. Important families grew influential and did not necessarily depend on ownership of land as a basis for their power. A new class emerged in Europe, they were the powerful citizens of towns, burghers, later they would be called the bourgeoisie. At the top of this new social pyramid were the great merchant and banking families: the Medici, Fugger and Coeur.

In the eleventh century, Normans and Italians took control of the eastern Mediterranean from the Arabs and the First Crusade (1095) revived trade with the Near East. Arab vessels brought luxury goods from the East to ports on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. From there they were shipped by caravan and then sea to the merchants of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa and on to the markets of Europe. By 1200 the Lombard towns of northern Italy, as well as many French and Flemish towns, had become self-governing towns.

Early in the fourteenth century two more major trade lanes developed within Europe. An all-sea route connected the Mediterranean with northern Europe via the Strait of Gibraltar. The old overland route from northern Italy through the Alpine passes to central Europe was also developed. From Venice and other northern Italian cities, trade flowed through such passes as the Brenner, sharply reducing the business of the Rhone valley route and the famous fairs of Champagne. The feudal law of the region was set aside during a fair, and in its place was substituted a new commercial code called the 'law merchant.' Special courts, with merchants acting as judges, settled all disputes.  
The Universities

From the 12th century a new type of town emerged, the university town. As governing the country became increasingly complex, a demand grew for educated young men who knew more than a purely religious education could provide them. As with the medieval towns, it was the demands of kings and nobles, that created an institution that would ultimately help bring about the end of feudalism. By providing a secular system of education, universities began the slow process of undermining the power of the church. Originally the word university meant a group of persons possessing a common purpose. In this case it referred to a guild of learners, both teachers and students, similar to the craft guilds with their masters and apprentices. In the thirteenth century the universities had no campuses and little property or money, and the masters taught in hired rooms or religious houses. If the university was dissatisfied with its treatment by the townspeople, it could migrate elsewhere. The earliest universities - Bologna, Paris, Salamanca and Oxford - were not officially founded or created, but in time the popes and kings granted them and other universities charters of self-government. The charters gave legal status to the universities and rights to the students, such as freedom from the jurisdiction of town officials.

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Oxford University today


Jews in medieval towns

Jews were the only non-Christian religious group tolerated in medieval Europe. In the early Middle Ages, Jews had been traders. They were accepted by both Christians and Muslims and could travel across frontiers in a way that the two dominant groups could not. But as a minority they were often subject to terrible persecution. As the great Renaissance philosopher Erasmus later said: 'If hating Jews is to be a good Christian, then we are all Christians.' This anti-Semitism had its origin in the beginning of Christianity itself, The church preached that Jews had been responsible for the death of Jesus; their punishment was to wander, to never be accepted until they converted to Christianity. This made the life of Jews very precarious.  Amongst other things, Jews were not allowed to own land. Christians who could own land, were not allowed to lend money. Therefore Jews did not farm, lived in towns in Jewish ghettos and lent money to the Christians who needed it. Jews were also barred from holding posts in government and the military, and excluded from membership of guilds. Jews’ economic and cultural successes tended to arouse the envy of the populace.

Although persecution of Jews happened throughout the Middle Ages, times of unusual upheaval often triggered anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms (organized massacres). Jews were accused of  killing Christian children - blood libel - to obtain blood to put in their bread for Passover. During the First Crusade knights  unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic violence in France and the Holy Roman Empire, including massacres in Worms, Trier (both now in Germany), and Metz (now in France). Jews were blamed for having poisoned the wells and therefore causing the Black Death and thousands were killed all over Europe. In Basel, the guilds organised the arrest of 600 Jews, who were tied up in a wooden barn on the river Rhine which was then set on fire. The most common punishment was banishment. gradually Jews were expelled from almost all of western Europe England (1290), France (14th century), Germany (1350s), Portugal (1496), and the largest population from Spain 1492. Jews headed east and found sanctuary in Poland, which until the Holocaust during the Second World War had the biggest population of Jews in Europe.


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Medieval Christian anti-Semitic propaganda -
Medieval Jews try to convert a university student to the worship of a cat.


1. Describe the three reasons why towns became established.
2. Explain carefully why the medieval guild was so important to the medieval town.
3. Explain how and why medieval towns grew and why this growth undermined feudalism.
4. Watch the video about universities. Explain why universities weakened the church.
5. Watch video about medieval Jews and read the text. Explain why and how Jews suffered persecution in medieval Europe.



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