The Medieval Town. While the great majority of the people lived in rural communities and tilled the soil, there were some who lived in towns. A town would often begin under the rule of a noble, but in time the townsmen would gain the privilege of local self-government. Usually the townspeople would finally get a charter from the king, which, in addition to the right to govern themselves, gave them other privileges, including the right to carry on trade. The merchants or tradesmen formed guilds, or associations, which protected their common interests throughout the land. The workmen in the medieval towns also organized guilds known as craft guilds. The guild system tried to avoid competition by resorting to co-operation. As the economic life developed and trade became more important, the towns acquired more wealth and power, and became important factors in the organization of national states by helping one feudal lord, as a king, to subdue other lords and thus establish central or national government and to bring the feudal system to an end.
Social and Economic Conditions Under the Feudal System. Under the feudal system much time was devoted to active warfare. This made for confusion and there was little time for building up a civilization such as had appeared in ancient Greece or in the Roman Empire. The arts of peace were neglected because men spent much time at war and had hard work to obtain merely the bare necessities of life. Under these conditions the poor suffered most severely. The peasant who lived in a one-room but with a floor of earth knew little or nothing about the problems of health and sanitation. He worked from early morning until late at night, and then slept on a pile of straw. He had few articles of furniture, but in the corner of his hut stood the hoe, the sickle, and the flail, which he, his wife, and his children knew how to use. During the busy season his wife worked with him in the fields from morning till night.
There was little in the feudal system that would attract us today. There was little security or peace; there were hardly any amusements, and no books to read; and besides, very few people were able to read, even if books had been available. The peasant knew only hard labor. There was no opportunity for education, travel, and self-development. Ignorance of hygiene and sanitary conditions brought high death rates, and there were periods of famine and pestilence unknown in modern times.
Even in towns there existed similar unsanitary conditions. The townsmen of the Middle Ages knew nothing of our modern methods of planning towns and cities. They had no hard roads, no modern water supply, and no modern methods of safeguarding the health of the people. Garbage was thrown into the narrow streets, where swine served as scavengers.