The History of Medieval Europe

By Lynn Thorndike; James T. Shotwell | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER XVII
THE RISE OF TOWNS AND GILDS

As the decline of the ancient city-state had sounded the knell of classical culture, so the revival of town life was a chief factor in medieval civilization. The destructive work of war and the productive toil of agriculture were the chief occupations in the early Middle Ages and the basis of feudal society. There were a few scattered industries in monastery and manor, but really skilled artisans had to be sought from Constantinople. What towns there were in southern Italy or on the Mediterranean coasts of France and Spain owed their existence to their trading relations with Constantinople. In most regions an occasional market or fair sufficed for the business life of a large area. Roman municipal institutions had given way to the rule of bishops or of feudal lords, and the people had to a large extent lost even their personal freedom. But after the break-up of Charlemagne's empire and the renewed barbarian invasions, Western Christendom began to increase in population, to develop industries and commerce and cities and a free working-class of its own. Indeed, it is thought that the very incursions of Northmen and Hungarians caused the building of protecting walls about settlements and so contributed to the growth of towns.

Revival of town life

But it is difficult to speak with any certainty concerning town life in the West before the twelfth century, since we do not possess records until then. As a matter of fact, our information is scanty until some time after that. Consequently, when first we begin to hear of the towns, the gilds, and the burghers, they are often already full-fledged and their origins are lost in a dim past. For a long time most writers were clergymen and were little interested in business and commerce except as the monasteries kept records of their own property. Nor had the authors of

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