Book Summary: “Life in a Medieval City” by Joseph and Frances Gies

Title: Life in a Medieval City
Author Joseph and Frances Gies
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The authors overview daily life in Troyes, France in 1250. Troyes was the site of the famous Champagne fairs that brought merchants from Italy, Flanders and other parts of Western Europe.

Key Take-aways

The authors’ conclusions are much the same as “The Medieval City” by Norman Pounds, but this book gives a little bit more of the flavor of daily life.

Important Quotes from Book

“Over a lengthy interval in the tenth and eleventh centuries two major developments stimulated city growth. One was land clearance…. Behind land clearance lay a number of improvements in agricultural technology that taken as a whole amounted to a revolution”

“The second major influence on urban development was the beginning of medieval mining.”

“The essence of the new movement was the “commune,” a sworn association of all the businessmen of a town. In Italy, where the nobility lived in towns, many nobles had gone into business, and some of them helped found communes. But the commune, even in Italy, was a burgher organization; in northwest Europe nobles, along with the clergy, were specifically excluded. Cloth merchants, hay merchants, helmet makers, wine sellers—all the merchants and craftsmen of a town—joined together to defend their rights against their secular and ecclesiastical lords.”

“Besides these peacetime calamities, there is always the possibility of war. Here at least people in the city enjoy an advantage over the peasants in the villages. When the feudal army rides, it sets fire to everything it cannot carry off, but the walls of a city like Troyes are nearly always proof against such depredations”

“Medieval cities enjoy a great deal of individual liberty, varying degrees of self-government, and little democracy”

“The charter is essentially a compact between the burghers and their seigneur, or a contract for which the commune is the collective bargaining agent.”

“the result is to place town government in the hands of wealthy burghers closely allied in interest to their prince. Typically a small number of families monopolize political power.”

“Under the mayor and the town councillors serve a bureaucracy of officials, treasurers, clerks, and magistrates. The town watch guards the ramparts by day and patrols the streets by night. In case of attack, the watch is supplemented by the whole militia”

“Nearly all charters promise the seigneur ost et chevauchée (military service) but on varying terms”

“Another major source of revenue is the cause of violent wrangling among the competing authorities. This is justice. Whoever administers justice keeps the fines and forfeits, so kings, counts, barons, bishops, and burghers quarrel jealously over jurisdiction.”

“the decline of the Champagne Fairs. An unparalleled school for banking, bookkeeping, and merchandising, the fairs helped kill themselves by nourishing more efficient methods of doing business. The grandson of the Italian businessman who struggled over the Alpine passes, at the head of his pack train, stayed home in his countinghouse and struggled over accounts. Traveling partners were replaced by permanent factors stationed in the principal cities of the north”

“Ultimately the old overland route of the spice and cloth trade was itself superseded. As early as 1277 a venturesome Genoese galley rounded Gibraltar and crossed the stormy Bay of Biscay to the English Channel, though it was some time before shipping became safe enough to compete in cost with land transport. For shipments by both land and sea, the business tycoon of the fourteenth century took advantage of another new business technique—cargo insurance.”

If you would like to learn more about cities in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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