Read Life in a Medieval City Online

Authors: Frances Gies,Joseph Gies

Tags: #General, #Juvenile literature, #Castles, #Troyes (France), #Europe, #History, #France, #Troyes, #Courts and Courtiers, #Civilization, #Medieval, #Cities and Towns, #Travel

Life in a Medieval City

BOOK: Life in a Medieval City
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Life in a Medieval City

Joseph and Frances Gies

Jane Sturman Gies
Frances Gibson Carney

Nos ignoremus quid sit matura senectus,
scire aevi meritum, non numerare decet



Troyes: 1250

A Burgher’s Home

A Medieval Housewife

Childbirth and Children

Weddings and Funerals

Small Business

Big Business

The Doctor

The Church

The Cathedral

School and Scholars

Books and Authors

The New Theater


Town Government

The Champagne Fair

After 1250
Genealogy of the Counts of Champagne
Searchable Terms
About the Publisher
Medieval city gate
. Among the finest surviving is that of the Porte St.-Jean at Provins, one of the four Champagne Fair towns. The two towers are connected on three levels: under the roadway, above the entry, and on top of the wall. (French Government Tourist Office)


Medieval city gate

Town wall of Provins

Cat’s Alley, Troyes

Romanesque house at Cluny

Thirteenth-century house at Cluny

Thirteenth-century wooden casket

A thirteenth-century banquet

A thirteenth-century house in Provins

Dice players

Medieval shop front

Sculptors at work

Merchant furriers

A cartwright and cooper

An apothecary at work

Enamel eucharistic dove and censer

Reliquary chest

Statue of the Virgin

Cathedral of St.-Pierre, Troyes

A typical flying buttress

Medieval machinery

“Music,” portal sculpture

Thirteenth-century book cover

Illuminated page, Book of Hours

Siege of a city

Money changers


Main routes to the Champagne Fairs

Map of Troyes


he western European city, with all its implications for the future, was born in the Middle Ages. By 1250 it was alive and flourishing, not only on the ancient Mediterranean coast but in northwest Europe. The narrative that follows is an attempt to depict life at the midpoint of the thirteenth century in one of the newly revived cities: Troyes, capital of the rich county of Champagne, seat of a bishop, and, above all, site of two of the famous Fairs of Champagne.

Back in the days when Julius Caesar camped in Gaul and bivouacked in Britain, there were few places in northwest Europe that could be called cities. Lutetia (Paris) was sufficiently important for Caesar’s Commentaries to record its destruction by fire. But in most of the region political organization was too undeveloped, commerce too scanty, and religion too primitive to permit the creation of communities larger than villages. Vast areas remained wilderness.

The Roman legions built roads, provided a market for local farm produce, and offered shelter to traders in their fortified camps. One place they fortified was a hamlet at the confluence of the Seine and an important military road, the Via Agrippa. Marcus Aurelius built a tower there, and later emperors, notably Aurelian, employed it as a base. Along with other camp towns, “Tricasses” took on the appearance of a permanent settlement as garrisoned soldiers married local girls, raised families, and stayed on after their discharges to farm outside the walls or perform craftsmen’s jobs inside. Graduating from army base to administrative center, the town acquired masonry walls and attracted new inhabitants: tax collectors, bureaucrats, army purveyors, and skilled and unskilled laborers, including prisoners of war brought back from the wilds of Germany and Friesland. Troyes hardly rivaled the opulent cities of Southern Europe or even Paris, which by the third century boasted three baths, a theater, and a racetrack. Troyes may have had one bath, which would have made it the equal in amenity of most of the other northern towns.

The Christian Church furnished a powerful new impetus to the development of many backwoods towns in the north, although the first apostles were not always appreciated by the pagan civil and religious authorities. At Troyes, as elsewhere, a number of martyrs were created by governors and emperors who held with the faith of their fathers. But once the Church had made a believer out of the Emperor Constantine, it had clear sailing. In the fourth and fifth centuries bishoprics sprang up all over the map. The natural place for a bishop to establish himself was in a Roman administrative center, usually a former legionary camp. The new clerical establishments required the services of a secular population of farmers and craftsmen. A new word described these episcopal towns
(city)—a derivation of the Latin
that usually took on the meaning of a populated place inside walls.

As the power of the Roman Empire faltered, local Roman officials lost their authority, creating a vacuum that was filled by Christian bishops. By the middle of the fifth century the prestige of the bishop of Troyes was such that when the Huns appeared in the neighborhood everyone turned to him for protection.

The town had just been sacked once by the Vandals, and Attila’s Huns were reputed to be even less amicable. Bishop Lupus first sent a deacon and seven clerks to propitiate the enemy, but an unlucky accident caused the mission to miscarry. The clerics’ white vestments made Attila’s horse rear. Concluding that his visitors were magicians, the Hun chieftain had them slain on the spot, one young clerk escaping to tell the tale. Attila then went off to fight the Romans, Goths, Burgundians, and Franks, who momentarily stopped fighting among themselves to take him on. Beaten, though not badly, Attila returned eastward, with Troyes directly in his path. It was an ominous moment, and once more everyone turned to Bishop Lupus. This time Lupus negotiated in person, and he scored a surprising success. Attila spared Troyes, and, taking the bishop with him as far as the Rhine, sent him home laden with honors. For this diplomatic feat Lupus was first denounced as a collaborator and exiled, but later, on sober second thought, restored to his see, to be eventually canonized as St.-Loup.

By the end of the fifth century the western half of the Roman Empire had slid into chaos. Nearly all the cities, old and new, large and small, declined catastrophically. People borrowed stones and bricks from public monuments to patch up their houses and strengthen walls against hordes of unwelcome immigrants. Commerce, already slowed down by a long-drawn-out, deeply rooted agricultural crisis, was nearly brought to a halt by the turmoil of the great migrations, or invasions, from the north and east. Towns like Troyes remained stunted, half military, half rural. Apart from crude ecclesiastical buildings—bishop’s palace, basilica-cathedral, the abbey and a couple of priories—the walls of Troyes enclosed only a few score hovels. Most of the town’s forty-acre area was given over to vineyards, vegetable gardens, and pasturage.

Yet the marauding barbarians did contribute something to the growth of such settlements. After pillaging a Roman province, they set up a headquarters that generally metamorphosed into a petty capital. Reims, north of Troyes, became the capital of the Franks, and Troyes a Frankish sub-capital of Champagne. The Franks’ chief, Clovis, hardly less truculent a fellow than Attila, was more completely vanquished by St.-Rémi, bishop of Reims, than Attila had been by St.-Loup of Troyes. As St.-Rémi eloquently narrated the story of Jesus’ martyrdom, Clovis exclaimed, “If only I’d been there at the head of my valiant Franks!” Clovis received baptism, and all his valiant Franks promptly did likewise.

In the sixth and seventh centuries a new ecclesiastical source of cities appeared—the Benedictine monastery. The institution spread rapidly, establishing itself sometimes in towns, sometimes in open country, and immediately attracting craftsmen, farmers, and traders. In the Bavarian forest appeared “Monks’ Town”—Munich. In Flanders a Benedictine abbey built at the point where the river Aa becomes navigable formed the nucleus of the future manufacturing city of Saint-Omer.

On the Mediterranean littoral many of the old Roman cities did business in the Dark Ages much as they had done under the Empire. Marseilles, Toulon, Arles, Avignon, and other Provençal ports continued active commerce with the eastern Mediterranean. They imported papyrus and spices, for which the Benedictine monasteries helped provide a market. As a return cargo, the Provençal ships often carried slaves.

This state of affairs came to an end in the seventh century. The electrifying military successes of the followers of Mohammed in the Near East and North Africa were accompanied by a major dislocation of Mediterranean trade. Modern scholars have modified Henri Pirenne’s thesis on the causal connection between Mohammed and the Dark Ages, pointing out other influences at work. But it is fact that as Moslem fleets appeared in the western and central Mediterranean, the old Roman-Christian trading cities were thrown on the defensive and were frequently raided and pillaged. Genoa, once a busy port, declined to a fishing village. New cities, flying the banner of the Prophet, blossomed along the shores of North Africa—Cairo, Mahdia, Tunis. Ancient Greek and Roman ports took on new life under the conqueror’s administration. In the harbor of Alexandria, guarded by the lighthouse that had been a wonder of the world for a thousand years, new shipyards furnished the vessels for Moslem commerce and piracy, the products of which, in turn, made Alexandria’s markets the largest in the Mediterranean. One Christian—if not exactly European—port was even busier: Constantinople, capital of the eastern Roman Empire, strategically seated astride major trade routes from east, west, north and south. But except for Greek Constantinople the Moslem merchants and raiders virtually took over the maritime world. In the eighth century their advance enveloped Spain and the Balearic Islands, and even a piece of Provence, from which foothold they raided all the ancient cities of the Rhône valley. One party roamed far enough north to sack Troyes.

Sacking was something to which citizens of an early medieval city had to be resigned. Not only pagan invaders, but Christian lords, and even bishops, did their share—Troyes was sacked by the bishop of Auxerre. But the champion raiders, who appeared in the late ninth century, were the Vikings.

By the time they reached Troyes these red-bearded roughnecks from the far north had taken apart nearly every other town on the map—Paris, London, Utrecht, Rouen, Bordeaux, Seville, York, Nottingham, Orléans, Tours, Poitiers; the list is an atlas of ninth-century western Europe. In Champagne the invaders were led by a local freebooter named Hasting, who was noted for his prodigious strength. Reversing the custom by which Vikings sometimes settled in southern Europe, Hasting had traveled to Scandinavia and lived as a Northman, returning to lead his adopted countrymen on devastating forays into Normandy, Picardy, Champagne, and the Loire valley.

BOOK: Life in a Medieval City
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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