Feudal structure allowed the formation of a distinct relationship between the rural and the urban (urbs means city in Latin). Earlier, cities were formed, or at least supported, by a central political authority. Think of Rome that had 1.000.000 residents. Yet, there was no authority to support the feudal cities. In other words, the relationship between a city and the countryside during the medieval ages requires a closer scrutiny, for it is the product of a new relationship.
The medieval “town” was paradoxical in the sense that whereas the feudal agriculture was based on serfdom (or in other words, unfree labor), the citizens of a town were free. It had its own jurisdiction, meaning if there was a dispute between the residents, it was not the lord who looked over the affair. Even though the town in a way represented the limits of the landlords, it was also promoted by them, for they saw profit in doing so. Almost half the towns in medieval Europe were established by feudal lords due to the immense financial gains.
Two points are important in speaking of towns:
1) They were the main centers of trade.
2) They were autonomous centers of commodity production.
Thus, in the dichotomy of the rural and the urban, couple of things require emphasis:
- Division of Labor between the town and the countryside. The residents of a town were mainly the consumers of the goods produced in the countryside. They were people who were tied to the countryside for their survival.
- Guilds: The residents of the towns, because they were not engaged in agricultural production, were craftsmen, thus they engaged in another form of production. Their labor could directly be utilized in the market, strengthening the town’s role as the center of trade. These craftsmen sometimes belonged to the guilds, and thus the guild-system became an important tool in the social, economic and political life of the towns. The artisans who formed the guilds even had their own courts of justice.
- Fortification: These towns which were centers of trade required protection since they acquired the wealth that other places lacked. Therefore, the medieval towns in Europe were mostly fortified. Indeed, in German, the word for fortress is “burg,” and “bourgeoisie” derives from this word.
Some towns in Europe are described as the best examples of town-formation. Italy, which did not have any sort of political authority after the fall of the Roman Empire, characterizes the feudal city-formation in the best possible way. Its flourishing cities such as Venice, Florence, Mantua etc. are the places where we may observe how “free” the city was and how it fed on its rural hinterland. Moreover, as the Italian cities started to control the Mediterranean sea-trade, they also became important monetary centers – and we see the formation of banking systems in Italy in the twelfth century.