Elliot Fernandez

Medieval cities under feudalism and commercial expansion

Until the feudal revolution of the 11th-12th centuries in Europe, we can only find important cities in the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim territories.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2020-03-22 | Updated on 2022-09-14

Development of medieval cities during feudalism

During the first centuries of the Middle Ages, a period known as the Early Middle Ages, cities of a certain size existed in Western Europe only in the territories of the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim Iberian Peninsula. In the rest of the European territories, it was not until the Feudal Revolution that cities of considerable size appeared. Notwithstanding, in the context of the first feudal centuries the cities had a secondary role.

Cities during the Early Middle Ages were of little importance. For a good part of the history of the Roman Empire, cities were the central space of political, economic and social life. With the disappearance of the Empire, those same cities had been emptied of content and population. The cities seat of bishops could maintain a certain importance. Nevertheless, the city as an institution was in retreat.

From the second half of the 12th century, a change of trend took place: the spectacular development of the urban reality began, which coincided with the stage of European territorial expansion. Two phenomena that cannot be separated from each other and that went in parallel with the growth of the power of the feudal monarchies. It was one more element of feudalization.

Núcleos de población en Europa superiores a 10.000 habitantes (puntos rojos)
European population hubs of over 10,000 inhabitants (red dots)

Three parallel phenomena occurred during the urbanization process in the feudal period:

Did the growth of the cities result only from population expansion? It's very difficult to say. Indirect sources indicate that population growth did occur, but to what extent, we do not know.

What we do know is that the growth in the number of inhabitants was a consequence of the displacement of people from the countryside to the urban centres. The city became an attraction for a rural population coming from a radius very close to the city. As this radius was further away, the migration process was not as active.

What were the medieval cities like?

Cities developed in a mostly agrarian society, where most of the population lived in the countryside. Yet, with the growth of the urban centres, they soon experienced a significant demographic shift. Many people were concentrated in the cities, with a much higher density than in the rural world. As topographical and urban characteristics, we can mention that the medieval cities were located at the crossroads of the main roads or the sea and river ports.

City of Breslau, Lower Silesia
City of Breslau, Lower Silesia

The seaports and roads were spaces suitable for locating cities. And the towns were walled (walls that close the town). Sometimes the walls were the same houses, with the facades facing outwards from the city and acting as insulation from the outside enemy.

What unique and common buildings were there in medieval cities?

The five elements that could not be missing in a city were:

Among all the elements, the wall was the most characteristic, as it defined the perimeter and the internal morphology of the city. The central element was the square where the market was located. The city forced the creation of suburbs outside the walls.

The city's own legal organization

The feudal city had its own legal organization. The cities were initially within the traditional feudal districts (in the hands of private lords). During the Lower Middle Ages, the general trend was the creation of specific autonomous regulatory districts for the cities. In this way, medieval cities became legal “islands” within the feudal space thanks to the achievement of their own normative codes (privileges granted by the various Lords). These charters were quite normal in medieval cities, and they regulated social, economic and political life.

The cities were equipped with institutions that were controlled by the people who were part of the new urban oligarchies, formed by:

The medieval cities had two institutions of government:

The villa franca were those that had received some privilege from the Lord (certain fiscal exceptions, for example).

Medieval cities during Feudalism

What did the cities represent within the feudal agricultural world? Cities were islands within a largely agrarian world, where non-agrarian activities such as handicrafts flourished. Textiles stood out over other productive activities. Commercial activity also stood out, with the weekly markets taking precedence over all other activities.

In Catalonia from the 11th century onwards, there was a great deal of local market activity, which formed a type of city that capitalized on the economic activity of its surroundings (the outer countryside).

Activities in the service sector also stood out in the city: banking, finance, church-related activities… In the largest cities, agriculture lost importance, favouring craft and other commercial production sectors. Commercial and service activities became more significant in the larger cities. They were major commercial cities with good communications and important ports.

Historiographical theories around the medieval cities

A first theory situates the city as the element of continuity with the classical era. A second thesis states that the medieval city was of an entirely new origin.

The city as a prolongation of the classical era

The Belgian historian Henri Pirenne defended the theory of the urbanization of cities starting from a commercial nucleus. According to Pirenne, the presence and expansion of the Muslims in the Mediterranean in the 8th-12th centuries had broken the commercial circuits that existed during the classical period. In the Mediterranean area, trade in the 8th-12th centuries was controlled by the Muslims.

According to Pirenne, the fact that the Christian feudal lords did not control this trade did not mean that there was no trade at all. However, Pirenne observed that there was a shift in the trade routes towards Northern Europe, which became a major trading area. Demand was created when there was money to be spent, and Northern Europe was a booming area. In the Mediterranean basin there was less commercial activity as the situation had changed.

Yet, Pirenne had not sufficiently appreciated the role of craftsmanship in the Christian cities of the Mediterranean. Pirenne thought that the revival of trade activity was due only to long-distance trade. And for Pirenne trade, as an external activity, was not part of the feudal fabric. Trade would be, in his view, an erosive element of the feudal order. Following this theory, the city was a non-feudal element.

There is a historiographic line that defends that in the city the seed was being created of what would eliminate feudalism a few more centuries later.

The city as an integral element in the feudal order

The British historian Rodney Hilton argued that the medieval city was fully integrated into the feudal order because the lordly interest was to promote the growth and foundation of cities. According to Hilton, the city capitalized on the core of power and had a marked hierarchy (craftsmanship versus big business).

There was a clear separation between producers and sellers, and a subordination of producers to merchants. Those who ended up monopolizing the wealth were the merchants, who did not reinvest the profits in the productive activity or in its structure. There was no investment process. These gentlemen were dedicated to usury, loans, or rentals (they acted as feudal lords).

A second element to reaffirm Hilton's theory is urban conflict, the struggle of the city itself against the feudal lords.

The medieval city within the feudal order was not a product outside of feudalism but was an instrument of the very evolution of feudalism. One cannot speak of a clash of interests between the feudal nobility and the feudal oligarchy (formed by rentiers, lenders and the world of finance in general). The feudal lords benefited from local trade. Much bourgeoisie acquired rights, ennobled themselves. All together, they constituted an oligarchy.

Origin of the urban patriarchy (the bourgeoisie)

Miniature where a group of bourgeoisie appears in the foreground
Miniature where a group of bourgeoisie appears in the foreground

The urban patriarchy was formed through the arrival in the city of feudal officers and landowners and knights or seconded from intermediate lineages. These people were willing to do any kind of activity to improve their situation.

Cities were a centre of attraction for everyone. Even the feudal lords lived there some seasons. The city was an important centre of consumption as a nucleus of demand for luxury products. That is why the cities were integrated into the major routes of commerce, especially of luxury items, spices, expensive fabrics, furs, jewels…

Since the 13th century onward, there was a great increase in commodities. Need for wheat, iron, wool. The connection between this feudal space is clear. The vitality of trade depended on feudal consumption: the peasant paid the rent to the feudal lord, who with it could buy luxury products. This circuit gave rise to trade.

The vitality of feudal trade depended on the ability of the lords to hoard rents: it is the keystone of the feudalism.

Economic activities in urban environments


Craftwork never ceased to be an essential activity during the Middle Ages. The difference was that during the Early Middle Ages, craft activity had been left to specialists and was very dispersed in the territory. In this initial period, crafts were made by peasant families themselves.

Due to urban growth and the new feudal economic system, however, it was necessary for this activity to be carried out, in particular, by specialists. During Feudalism, there was a tendency to centralize activities in the city.

There was a double change in the way of organizing production: it was now done by professionals and centralized in certain nuclei, which became specialized.

There were several large areas of textile production in Northern Italy (Tuscany) and the Netherlands. Why was it necessary to centralize production? To bring production closer to the buyer, to facilitate the collection of raw materials and to facilitate distribution. We possess historical information on urban craftsmanship thanks to the documentary references of the guilds.

The guilds were a way of organizing craft production. The guild was a grouping of craftsmen of the same trade, especially in the framework of a city, and often concentrated in the same street. They were under the protection of a patron saint.

Characteristics of guild production:

The most important sector was textiles, mainly wool. Silk production was even made in Italy and Byzantium. It had a great capacity by the city to attract this craft.

Trade was the central activity of medieval cities
Trade was the central activity of medieval cities


Trade tended to be centralized in urban centres. Before the feudal period, there was barter trade (exchange) with some local or regional areas. It worked through exchange. Very difficult to document.

With the period of feudalization, the first written references to trade appeared. The feudal lords authorized the practice of the market. We know this thanks to a series of taxes established to charge this activity. Until these institutions were controlled, we have no news.

On the other hand, we find long-distance trade, international trade. The Mediterranean became a vast commercial area. This trade had not been absent in the past, it was done by Jews and Muslims. One of the main groups involved in international trade was the Radhanites (Jews, who dominated the trade routes between 600 and 1000 AD). Starting in the 12th and 13th centuries, trade was carried out by feudal merchants. The importance of trade depended on the demand for luxury products. Trade began to pay off when feudalization began.

The cities that became pioneers of international trade were:

Commercial dominance was built on force and violence. The removal of Muslim traders was done through the use of strength. Activity with very few proven records. This was a slowly developing process. Given the lack of information, the Crown of Aragon established the alhóndigas, a precedent for the consulates of the sea. They were commercial places in a city abroad.

During the 11th century, Muslim merchants were replaced by Christians. The commercial volume was very tiny for the time. Little by little, this trade was consolidated. Those responsible for the consolidation of this international trade were the Italian cities.

The Venetian trade had a lot of influence, especially from the fourth crusade onwards. Trade became more and more effective, in the Mediterranean basin, but it needed a series of technical means: better sails, the expansion of ship loading, the creation of financial and commercial instruments, the formalization of commercial contracts (the Commandery).

Out of the word “Commenda” comes also the term applied to the execution of a commercial activity. Commercial companies were formalized. We also find the use of cheques. A trip to the Orient could last 1 year. It had many risks. It was precisely due to the high risk that the products had a very high price, and it paid the cost of the operation and the difficulties.

As commercial activity became more active, a useful instrument was needed: currency. But even more practical, they were the check and the bills of exchange, documents that allowed the exchange of money. They were a payment order. They worked with profit margins. The bill of exchange allowed speculation, it was as a precursor of the stock market. Ultimately, it was used as a speculative instrument.

This trade, which was becoming more and more complex, needed rules, regulations to make it work legally. One of the most interesting, beginning in the 13th century, was the Book of the Consulate of the Sea of Barcelona. It regulated practically everything. It was an open code, where new sections could be added.

Top trading hubs in Western Europe

Mediterranean basin

Maritime circuit with a city turned into the great market area: Constantinople (today Istanbul) that served as a link between the West and the East. The East was the beginning and the end of all business. The gateway was Constantinople. Most of the consumer goods came from the Orient. That was an area with low trade volume, but a lot of business.

North Sea and Baltic Sea: the Hanseatic League

In the North Sea and the Baltic, the so-called “Hanseatic League” or “Germanic Hansa” was organized. It brought together cities and merchants from all over this area, with the aim of homogenizing and streamlining their relations, as to act together dealing with the political and cultural differences that existed. It changed continuously throughout history, and it constantly evolved with its standards. There was never a centralized administration. The foundation of Hansa was closely related to the establishment of the German city of Lübeck, around the half of the 12th century. This city exercised central leadership. Around it, it brought together maritime and river cities.

Map with the trade routes of the Hanseatic League. Source: Wikipedia
Map with the trade routes of the Hanseatic League. Source: Wikipedia

Major urban network. Hansa consisted of 70 cities and had 200 other cities with some degree of connection.

Terminal cities: “Contorius Hanseatic.” Cities that became recipients of products coming from further away and then redistributed them throughout the Hansa. They were terminal cities in Bergen, Novgorod (Russia), London and Bruges.

What items were traded? Mostly raw materials and commodities: honey, leather, salt fish, salt, Bordeaux wine. Far more volume of goods, but the trade margin was not the same. The importance of the Hansa is clear because it even had a diplomatic corps, a truly important naval war fleet and because they even set up sea blockades.

The Champagne

This commercial area served as a link between the Northern and Mediterranean trading areas. At the end of the 10th century, it began to have a certain significance. But by the end of the 13th century, it began to decline.

The Champagne Fairs were held in: Robiens, Bar-Sur-Avee / Magng-Sur-Mane, and Provins. All year round, they held fairs. This gave them an extraordinary dynamism.

Geographical factors: good climate, good production of cereals and wine, centre of a large river network (Rhine and Meuse, which favoured good communications). It was a fairly quiet area, with no conflict with the Monarchy. A fair could last from 25 to 30 days. Four weeks that were always distributed in the following fashion: the first week was dedicated to textiles; the second week was dedicated to food products; the third week was devoted to livestock. Finally, the fourth week was dedicated to general management: payments, contracts, etc.

Why did this area decline at the end of the 13th century? Because there was less interest from the French monarchy in maintaining it, especially as a result of the opening of the Strait of Gibraltar. All these factors forced finding new commercial routes: displacement of the commercial activity towards the steps of Switzerland and in the German cities of the south.