Fantasy, History, Worldbuilding

Inspiration: How Medieval Towns Worked

A lot of fantasy writers draw inspiration from medieval Europe – or what they think is medieval Europe. This means kings with absolute authority, dirty peasants, shifty merchants, grubby towns and – besides a handful of inept town guards who seem to work directly for the king or local lord – a total lack of government or law.

Of course, the medieval world didn’t quite work this way.

With this in mind, I thought I’d outline how Medieval European towns actually functioned – who ran them, how they appeared, who lived there and all that. Let’s begin at the bottom. How does a Medieval town start?

Some towns coalesced naturally – either as the descendants of old Roman towns, like London or Bath, or at natural points like road crossings where merchants and others might often stop for a rest. Others were founded on purpose, with the local church, lord, or even the king setting aside land specifically for the purposes of establishing a town.

Regardless of origin, what made a town was its charter.

The charter was a legal document that outlined the rights and privileges of the town’s inhabitants, as well as how it would pay tax and be governed. Some unofficial, organically developing ‘towns’ had to fight for the right to be granted a charter, while in the case of a local landowner choosing to establish one, often the charter was one of the first steps on that road, long before the area had any kind of urban development.

Charters varied wildly from place to place, but these were some common features:

  • Governance. The charter usually confirmed that citizens would have the right to elect a mayor and sometimes a council from among them to manage day-to-day operations. These were usually re-elected every year.
  • Justice. Some towns had their own courts and judiciary, and some charters stipulated that their citizens could only be tried by their town’s court, though the royal court usually took charge when crimes were especially serious.
  • Tax. More often than not, citizens of a town were exempt from paying some or all royal taxes. Instead, the town government paid a lump sum every year to the exchequer (the medieval English government’s treasury) – this was called the ‘fee farm’.
  • Poll exemption. Many charters granted the town’s citizens exemption from paying bridge, road and other tolls when travelling either in the lord’s land or around the whole kingdom, in the case of royal towns. This was to facilitate trade, since many of the town’s citizens would be merchants who travelled regularly as part of their job.
  • Market. Of course, the most important role a town played was as a centre of trade and exchange. A town’s charter would nearly always specify its market day – the day of the week that town was allowed to hold its market. Some towns were also given the right to host an annual faire – an extended trading event that lasted multiple days.
  • Freedom. In some charters, it was explicitly stated that any man who lived in the city for a year and a day, and paid the town’s fees and upheld his responsibilities, was considered a freeman of the town and any previous obligations he had were void. This protected peasants who fled their lord’s estates to join the city – and encouraged labourers to move to urban areas, ensuring the growth of the town.

So medieval towns weren’t just another continuation of the medieval system we think we know – the system of lords, peasants and feudalism. They were in effect separate from the rest of the realm, places where citizens elected their own governments, were judged by their own courts and paid their own taxes. This caused a deal of tension between townfolk and rural folk, and between the towns and lords, bishops and kings. For example, it’s not hard to imagine a merchant from London strolling through a northern town, not paying any tolls, getting drunk and making a nuisance of himself in the local tavern and then insisting he can only be tried by a London court, not the local one.

If you want to use this model in a fantasy setting, it’s worth thinking about how this system can cause conflict. A town is harbouring an unpopular rebel against the crown? A town shuts its gates to a royal army, or refuses to pay its annual tax? A serf runs away with the lord’s daughter and lives in the city for a year, earning its protection? There are many possibilities!

Example: Portsmouth

The city of Portsmouth has one of the oldest charters in England, granted in 1194. It was part of the estate of John de Gisors, a Norman lord, who started developing the area in the 1180s. He supported a failed rebellion in Normandy and his lands were seized by the king, Richard the Lionheart. Returning from crusade, Richard sold much of Gisors’s land to make up some considerable debts, but he kept the land that would become Portsmouth, granting it a royal charter.

Among other privileges, the new city would have the right to hold a 15-day faire once a year and a market every Thursday. Clearly wanting the town to grow quickly, he stipulated that the town’s annual fee farm would instead be spent locally, and over the next few years he built several houses and a hall there. He must have played a big role in its development, because the city still bears his coat of arms – the star and crescent – to this day.

Portsmouth coat of arms

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