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This lesson explores the urban revolution of the 12th century.

We will examine the causes, especially the resurgence of trade, and then look at the various factors that made the revolution possible. Finally, we will discuss the impact of this revolution on Medieval Europe.

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The State of the Medieval Economy from 750-1050

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, trade in Europe ground to a halt. Cities were abandoned. Craftsmen and merchants all but disappeared from the European landscape. Money fell out of use and trade was conducted by means of barter. Serfs struggled to feed themselves, and their lords enjoyed none of the luxuries we associate with aristocrats these days.

Europe experienced an urban revolution around the 12th century.
Europe Map

For three centuries, Europe languished in an economic slump.

Then, around 1050, the European economy started turning again, slowly at first, but quickly accelerating. Trade began to flow across Europe’s roads and waterways. Urban centers that had been all but abandoned began to grow again. Old trades re-emerged, and new trades were invented. The change was nothing short of an urban revolution. In the course of a couple centuries, Europe went from a continent of farmers, an economic dead end, a cultural backwater, to a land of merchants and craftsmen, living in bustling cities, generating culture at an unprecedented level.

The Scope of the Urban Revolution

The scope and speed of Europe’s urban revolution is rather startling, considering its stagnation during the Dark Ages. The old Roman cities, which had never been more than fortified outposts to start with, became the centers of growing urban sprawls. Paris, London and Cologne doubled in population between 1100 and 1200, and doubled again between 1200 and 1300. Outside the old empire, new towns were established. 12th century Germany witnessed the founding of such prominent cities as Freiburg, Lubeck, Munich and Berlin. The height of this urban explosion was Italy.

Venice, Genoa and Milan already had populations of over 100,000 in the 12th century. These populations would triple in less than two hundred years.

Factors Behind the Urban Revolution

Several factors made this urban revolution possible.

New lands were being opened up for agricultural development. A decline in Viking raids, combined with the development of stable central governments, at last allowed Europeans to stop huddling around feudal manors and start taming the great wilderness of the north. New agricultural technologies and techniques were producing unprecedented surpluses in European farms. The heavy plow was breaking up the rich soils of northern Europe. The three field crop rotation system was allowing farmers to wring the most from each acre.

These agricultural surpluses would be essential to feed Europe’s growing urban population.Meanwhile, labor saving technologies were freeing up human beings from many time consuming tasks. By the 12th century, Europeans had harnessed horses, the wind and rivers to do work that people used to do. This meant that it took far fewer people to run a farm. Instead of digging in the dirt with sticks or grinding grains by hand, people could pursue skilled trades in Europe’s growing cities and leave the grinding and digging to horses and mills.

These agricultural shifts were having an impact on the European aristocracy as well. Feudal lords were beginning to realize that they could make a lot more profit by charging rents on free peasants than they could by manning their own fields with serfs. Freed from the land at last, many of these free peasants left their farms to find fortune in the city.

Europeans harnessed the power of the wind, rivers, and horses to reduce human labor.
Peasants traded their surpluses at market towns.

Peasant Trading

With this trade, land and sea routes were reopened. Europe entered a frenzy of road building that might have even given the Romans pause. And at sea, the Italian city states of Genoa, Pisa and Venice had re-opened the Mediterranean for trade, reestablishing Europe’s link with the East.

For the first time in centuries, Europeans had access to oriental luxuries, like gems, spices, perfume and silk. European aristocrats began developing ever more expensive tastes, which drove them to further increase the economic output of their estates.Market towns boomed, and local market days gave way to huge trade fairs, bringing goods from all over Europe. At a trade fair in the French region of Champagne, you could find Flemish cloth, French wine, Italian olives and Eastern spices. And, even these trade fairs faded to insignificance when the Italian trading states expanded their shipping routes past the strait of Gibraltar, establishing trade centers across the Atlantic seaboard.As international trade accelerated, coinage returned to the scene.

The old barter system would not work in the world market. Merchants don’t carry silk a thousand miles to trade it for a pig. They wanted cold hard cash, if you please, or failing that, a hunk of gold would do nicely. Yet, even coins of precious metals could not keep up with the dizzying pace of international trade.

To overcome these limitations, Italians established business contracts and letters of credit to move wealth around without the trouble of dragging coins around in a chest. These enterprises, undertaken solely for the purpose of profit, made the merchants of Italy Europe’s first commercial capitalists.

The Beating Heart of a Growing Economy

These socioeconomic factors combined to make European cities possible. The surpluses in food from new lands and new agricultural technologies were essential to keep the cities fed.

The surplus in labor brought about by labor saving devices and the growing trend among the nobility of freeing their serfs, provided cities with a steady flow of free peasants to amplify their populations. The resurgence of trade brought these growing cities everything they needed, from food to raw materials, and carried finished goods from the urban craftsmen to the world market.In return, cities provided a market for those agricultural surpluses, encouraging them to grow even greater. Cities provided a place for excess labor and free peasants to flock to. Cities provided finished goods for merchants to take to the open market. So you see, these cycles were self-propagating; farmers, merchants, feudal lords and city dwellers supported one another’s endeavors in a series of positive feedback loops that would drag Europe from the Dark Ages back to the forefront of cultural and technological development.

Implications of the Urban Revolution

The urban revolution would have sweeping implications for European history.

The clearest change was economic. Before the urban revolution, each lord’s manor was designed for self-sufficiency. They made their own food, forged their own iron, and wove their own fabric. By trying to do everything, these feudal manors ended up doing everything rather poorly.

By contrast, as the European economy expanded, cities began to specialize and carve out their respective niches on the international market. University towns, like Paris and Bologna, became centers of science and scholarship. London, Genoa, Venice and Cologne became the long distance trade centers of their respective regions. And, manufacturing cities like Milan, Ghent and Bruges began laying the foundations for the large scale factories of the Industrial Revolution.With specialization came sweeping advances as like-minded scholars, merchants and craftsmen worked together to explore new questions, open new markets and develop new products and tools. Cities became the intellectual hearts of their regions.

With all these great minds together, intellectual experimentation expanded at a rate not seen in Europe since classical Athens.

Locations of major European trade centers
Trade Center Map

With the growth of cities and revitalization of trade, a wealthy middle class of merchants and craftsmen began to emerge.

Though these profit-minded individuals at first received the scorn of both nobles and the clergy, they soon demonstrated the incredible potential of free enterprise. Some of these merchants became even richer than the aristocrats who scorned them. In certain Italian cities, it became almost impossible to distinguish a lord from a merchant, as both lived in town in opulent palaces.

These political shifts brought about new forms of government as cities experimented with ruling themselves. Even the Church, which for so long had condemned the behavior of this middle class as detestable, shameful and insatiably greedy, began to sing a new tune and acknowledge that the necessary evils of merchants and money-lenders were, perhaps, more necessary than evil.

Lesson Summary

Around the 12th century, the European urban revolution completely changed the landscape of Medieval Europe. The populations of old cities grew exponentially, and new towns and cities sprung up across Europe.

This urban revolution was fueled by the food and labor surpluses resulting from new technologies and new attitudes of lords toward serfdom and profits. The growth of cities went hand in hand with the growth of trade, which flowed in ever-growing torrents across Europe. These factors, food surpluses, political shifts, the growth of trade and the growth of cities, all reinforced one another in a series of positive feedback loops.The results of this urban revolution were staggering. A new middle class of merchants and craftsmen emerged, forever changing the political landscape of Europe.

Cities became the intellectual and cultural centers of their regions, leading to intellectual experimentation, which in turn led to new forms of trade, new technologies and new ideas about the world and our place in it.

Learning Outcomes

After viewing this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Sum up the way in which the urban revolution came about and how it changed Europe
  • Realize how and why cities grew across Europe and began to trade
  • Perceive how the growth in commerce and change in the political environment were related during the urban revolution
  • Pinpoint major regions of trade during the urban revolution

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