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The Importance of Towns and Trade in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, towns and trade were very important to civilization, and many urban centers came about around the year 1200. The main reason for these cities and towns’ existence was trade and money. “It was the money that fueled the transformation of Europe, and the merchants who traded goods for money were the vehicles of that transformation.” (King, 322) The methods of merchants and traders that caused the first medieval cities to grow, “As they concentrated their activities at the intersections of key trade routes, they caused towns to form and ripen into cities.” (King, 322)

Early into the Middle Ages, trade had all but disappeared, with merchants’ jobs being so dangerous. “Bandits and pirates roamed at will, unchecked by Roman legions or auxiliaries, endangering merchant shipments by road or water.” (King, 322) There was no superpower such as Rome to stop these bandits and marauders who attacked trade ships and travellers. There were no laws that everyone adhered to, and no government to make these laws. “The trade that did exist must have suffered from political disarray-there were no judges available to enforce contracts and no financial officials to regulate the minting of new coins or the conversion of currency.” (King, 322)

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“By the tenth century, some Europeans…had learned of the great profit to be gained from buying things cheaply and selling them dearly.” (King, 324) This was the birth of the original merchants, those who settled towns and villages, and who traded with those who came to their towns. “From such enterprising traders came the makers of the medieval towns, and, ultimately, the great merchants of the later Middle Ages.” (King, 324) They often settled outside of the ruling lords castle, and on the more frequented trade routes, “Here, the goods of the East were available as well as European goods, such as salt, metals, food, and wool.” (King, 324)

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Before it collapsed, Roman cities slowly began to get smaller, “People left them in order to avoid taxes and responsibilities and even honours, which came at a heavy price.” (King, 326) Rome was an example of this decline in population. “From about a million at the height of its empire, the population of Rome to less than half that in just the mid-fifth century, then to about 50,000…a hundred years later…

By the fourteenth century, it had fallen even further, to about 20,000.” (King, 327) The smaller centers of Roman civilization suffered much greater losses until there was nothing left but walls, but “Opportunists salvaged the well-dressed stones from ancient crumbled buildings to build their new cathedrals and fortifications.” (King, 327) “From this depressing landscape, there began to arise, in the eleventh century, an urban civilization.” (King, 327)

In these times, many local groups settled down and formed towns, where there was some law if only regulating the town itself, and not the waters around it. Most usually it was the former serfs who made these towns, and usually around the former castles. “These offered to local villagers a reliable defence against raid and assault.” (King, 329) These townspeople were a new thing in medieval times. “They did not belong to one of the three main groups of medieval society: they did not fight, they did not plow the fields, and they did not lead the faithful to salvation. They made things, bought things, sold things-tasks little known to earlier medieval society.” (King, 325)

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“Cities remained small throughout the Middle Ages. At their peak, around 1300, many numbered between 10,000 and 12,000 persons.” (King, 329) These cities became groups of cities, all sharing the common ideals and laws, and eventually formed countries and kingdoms. Each city had a class system and its own guilds. These are the original cities of today, with the stronger groups surviving and still going today.

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The Importance of Towns and Trade in the Middle Ages. (2021, Feb 18). Retrieved February 7, 2023, from