Inside the Walls: Exploring Towns in the Middle Ages

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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.


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By Dr. Alixe Bovey
Head of Research
Courtald Institute of Art

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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.

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Miniature of a view of the Tower of London with London Bridge, from Charles d’Orleans’ Poetry – c.1450-1499 / This illustration depicts three key sights of London: The Tower of London, the Custom’s House and London Bridge in the background. In the different scenes, the artist shows off London’s military strength and fortitude, as well as its mercantile wealth as a centre of trade, depicted by the busy Thames flowing past the Custom’s House and the bridge connecting the city and the South.

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.

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The Luttrell Psalter – c.1320-1340 / The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous medieval manuscripts because of its rich illustrations of everyday life in the 14th century. It was not the first to include scenes of contemporary rustic life, but it is exceptional in their number and fascinating detail. Its lively and often humorous images provide a virtual ‘documentary’ of work and play during a year on an estate such as Sir Geoffrey’s.

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.

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Painting of boats leaving a city by night, from Les Commentaires de César – c.1480 / The painting shows a heavily fortified city with rolling English countryside around it. The scene is a busy one with many people carrying large sacks, coming and going by boat and on foot. In the background a huge army is returning, comparing the peaceful, more pastoral scene of successful trade at one gate, with the military might of the city at another.

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Miniature of a child falling off London Bridge, from John Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund – c.1461-1475 / This miniature details the moment a child is knocked off London Bridge by passing cattle and the rivermen rowing to rescue him from the water. It reveals how busy London Bridge was, with houses, shops and a large stream of trade passing over it between the rural southern side and the city on the north bank.

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.

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Full-page miniatures of an apothecary shop, from Mattheus Platearius’ Circa instans – c.1300-1325 / This illustration of an apothecary shop helps us to understand what different buildings and trades existed in medieval towns. Apothecaries were important members of the community and would have been more common in larger, busier towns and cities. Here the shop is shown alongside the church, demonstrating how people would look to both religion and medicine to help cure their ailments. The cut-away of the side of the shop reveals the apothecary engaged in selling some of his medicines; this would only have been available to those of high social standing.

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.

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Drawing of mendicant friars on columns, from the ‘Bible of William of Devon’ – c.1275-1300 / This illustration depicts mendicant friars preaching from the top of two pillars. Mendicant means to move from place to place, and these friars would have travelled around preaching and begging for charitable donations, food and lodging.

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