How were medieval cities worse?

Life in a medieval city

The main difference between the city and the surrounding area was that it was mostly surrounded by fortification walls, ramparts or moats that were supposed to prevent enemies from attacking them. In terms of the need for safety for life and limb, the city therefore had the same status for its residents as the medieval castle. From this analogy, the term "citizen" was formed, which originally meant nothing more than the inhabitant of a castle. The citizenship consisted of free citizens who did not belong to the nobility, which resulted in a certain social homogeneity. However, this ran within narrow limits, as it was characterized by different acquisitions. However, ownership was linked to personal performance and was not determined solely by the uninfluenceable factor of birth at a high level, so that the citizen could partly work out his status himself. Of course, hierarchies also formed in the medieval city, but these were far more permeable for social advancement and decline than within the feudal aristocratic society.

Social stratification

Although life in the city was less hierarchical than in the country, as was evident there, for example, in the relationship between the landlord and the farmer, there was also a social stratification in the city. For example, there were professions that were less respected than others because of their job characteristics. This included all professions, the exercise of which meant great physical exertion paired with a high level of dirt. These professional groups included, for example, the knackers or charcoal burners. The greatest prestige was assigned to the merchants, because it was in trading products that the greatest profits could be made, so that they often had quite considerable wealth. Craftsmen of various trades were also respected citizens. They organized themselves mostly in guilds and could - if they employed employees - also achieve some prosperity. In addition, however, there were also the simple white-collar workers and workers, whose livelihood security was much more difficult. These included the many day laborers who offered their labor under the law of supply and demand. Their working conditions often led them to existential crises. Sometimes this group did not even have the money for the next meal. Even below the day laborers were the people who sociology describes as subordinate figurations. They were exposed to social ostracism. This included the members of the dishonorable professions such as the executioner and prostitute. The many beggars were also not valued, as were the members of non-Christian religious communities such as people of the Jewish faith.

Organization in guilds and guilds

The professional organizations in which the merchants and craftsmen organized themselves were the guilds and guilds. These associations had their own rules that were binding for the members. Violations of guild rules were punished with fines or, in the worst case, with the exclusion of the member from the respective guild. Since this could mean economic ruin, compliance with the code of conduct hardly required any further external pressure, so that violations were relatively rare. In particular, the various companies that belonged to the guilds shaped the medieval townscape. Before the separation of place of work and place of residence, the production facilities of the trades were often in the home of the guild master. Certain work steps were moved outside so that medieval contemporaries could watch the master and his journeymen at work.

Guild sign

Furthermore, each guild had its own guild mark. This had an identity-creating effect for the members of the respective guild and also set them apart from the outside world. In addition, with the iconographic symbols, the guilds paid tribute to the fact that the literacy rate of the medieval population was extremely low. The trades were marked by guild signs attached to the outside so that even a person with no reading knowledge could see where he could purchase the various products or services. For example, the baker could easily be found by travelers who were not familiar with the area, as a stylized pretzel was attached to his house as a guild symbol.

Rural activities in the city

Although the city was characterized by the concentration of trade and industry, many so-called arable citizens lived and worked in many cities. On the outskirts of the city, near the fortification wall or immediately in front of it, they cultivated fields, kept cattle and thus contributed significantly to supplying the urban population with food. Many craftsmen also kept small livestock such as chickens and geese as well as pigs and goats, but only to secure the food needs of their own families.


Originally, markets were held at the intersection of trade routes. With the development of the cities, market activity shifted to a central location within the city. The traders offered their goods there on specified days. The permission to hold a market was tied to a privilege that was granted to the city in a sovereign act. The market established itself not only as a transshipment point for goods, but also for news. It offered a welcome change from everyday life and enjoyed great popularity as a meeting place and communication point. Traveling traders came here as well as settled ones. The latter often settled in close proximity to the market and used their houses both for living and for storing products. In the sense of an undisturbed and secure course of trade, the market had its own legal system, which was introduced under the name of market peace.


In addition to the regularly held markets, there were the annual markets. The term annual fair is derived from its frequency, because this market usually only took place once a year. It differed from the market held several times a week in that it had an expanded range of products and was promoted by more favorable legal provisions. When holding a fair, it was important to meet a special supply of goods with sufficient demand. Initially, this type of market was usually associated with local church festivals, at which the active participation of the population could be expected.

Relationship between work and leisure

As in the country, most people's daily routine was determined by work that occupied a large part of the day. A twelve-hour daily working time was considered common. On Sundays work was stopped, as this day, as the Lord's Day, was due to church attendance, prayer and reflection on the finiteness of life. The extent of the average weekly working hours makes it clear that the organization of leisure time only played a subordinate role for the majority of the population.

Leisure time and entertainment opportunities

The workload in the city and in the country hardly differed. On the other hand, the Middle Ages also had many public holidays on which work had to be suspended due to legal regulations. In some centuries, the number of public holidays even exceeded that of today's modern working world. For example, the two weeks before Easter were off work for several centuries. In addition, work was suspended on the numerous days dedicated to saints. The opportunities for leisure and entertainment were generally much higher in the city than in the village settlements.

Easter and Passion plays

The Easter and Passion plays had their origins in the context of church culture, but in the late Middle Ages they formed an integral part of the urban, folk festival culture. The performances of the story of the passion and resurrection of Christ were no longer performed in the church, but in public space as a drama. The performance period lasted several days on which no work was carried out. In France, there is evidence that the Passion Play lasted up to a month here. Some cities, such as Reims, poured wine for free and distributed biscuits to all visitors during this time.

guest houses

The inn in the true sense of the word did not emerge until the second half of the 13th century in southern Europe, spread to Central Europe in the 14th century and northern Europe in the 15th century. It was a house with a public character, which was usually identified by an inn sign or a similar sign. The landlord had the right and - if the available space was sufficient - the duty to accommodate strangers for a fee. Guesthouses first emerged in the cities in which the council and, above all, the guilds fought against the hospitality and overnight stays in private houses that had prevailed until then, which was combined with trade and the storage of goods.

Brothels and bathhouses

Brothels established themselves particularly in the High and Late Middle Ages and were very popular in the cities. Although the prostitutes' services were chronically inconsistent with prevailing morality and were officially branded, visits to brothels were tolerated. This difference between the theoretical moral claim and the tolerated practice was justified with the benefit for the physical and mental health of the men as customers of the prostitutes. This thinking was based on the fact that citizens who were denied marriage for various reasons could live out their sex drive in this way. The public bathhouses had a similar function. Here the people of the Middle Ages could also devote themselves to personal hygiene and relaxation, but these facilities served not least as a place for performing sexual services.


Celebrations increased the number of days of rest over the course of the year. Above all, they offered the less fortunate groups within society a welcome form of compensation for their everyday burdens. Celebrations, however, should not be viewed solely as opportunities for entertainment; political intentions have always been linked to them. Every festival, even if it was of aristocratic origin, had the task of satisfying the curiosity of an audience of widely differentiated social class and professional activity. The medieval festivals were usually aimed at both the privileged and the common people. In contrast to antiquity, which had closed places for festivities such as amphitheaters, medieval festivals took place in streets, markets and communal squares. Processions, lances, triumphs, tournaments, traveling theater and horse races were among them. The place of the ecclesiastical festivals was the church or the cathedral, but in most cases the church forecourt, which was freely accessible to all citizens. A festival offered the opportunity to bring about a variety of encounters and to emphasize the political unity of a community such as that of the citizens of a city, that of the Christians or that of the subjects of a king.

Celebrations as a mediator of education

From a cultural point of view, festivals were the expression of old traditions and their survival. In addition to the sermon and church sculptures, the festival was one of the most important ways of conveying religious, historical or literary content to people in the absence of a widespread written and book culture. Thanks to the festivals and their figurative representations (festival carts, carnival figures, wooden statues, mimic-theatrical performances) all social classes were able to preserve the tradition of the past.

The dark side of city life

The city was seen as varied and colorful, but the city was also characterized by dirt and stench. For example, rubbish, including the contents of the chamber pots that served as toilets, was simply dumped out of the windows onto the street. Since there was neither garbage nor sewage disposal, the hygienic conditions were more than inadequate. Bugs and rats multiplied rapidly and contributed significantly to the spread of diseases that often took epidemic-like courses, such as the outbreak of the plague in the mid-14th century. An additional risk to life and limb was the conflagration that struck many cities several times. They were created through the use of wood as the main building material for houses, which were also very densely packed. If a house burned, the flames quickly spread to other buildings, so that a single source of fire could destroy entire neighborhoods.