Life in the 13th Century

Not much differed in housing, clothing, and health in the 13th century from the 11th or 12th centuries. The people of the first towns were still not free. All of the land in England was divided into manors. The lord of the manor governed over the townspeople who had lived on his land and would make them perform feudal services. Town charters came about in the 13th century, as did crafts, and guilds. In this post I’ll be focusing on charters, the crafts and the guilds that began to arise at this time.

Towns Under Lords

In my post about the 12th century I covered some of the information you will find here as well and as was said there, the land on which towns arose on had belonged either to the king, a baron, or an abbot. The people in the first towns had to pay for their land by working for the lord of the manor. Like a serf of the manor, the town’s craftsmen and merchants would be obliged to work for three days a week in service to the lord. They would have to perform boon-work and pay quit-rent in money or in corn, herrings, honey, or other things. They also would pay to have their corn ground at the lord’s mill. Either the king’s sheriff or the baron’s steward would administer justice in the town, they would also collect dues from the townsmen.

A lord’s power over a town was greatly hampered with the development of crafts and trades. The townspeople had wanted to find a way to be free of the services they had to do for the lord, and wanted the right to manage their own affairs and choose their own officials and not be under the king’s sheriff or lord’s steward. The had wanted the power of administering their own justice as well. Both in the previous century and the 13th centuries throughout England the towns were fighting for their freedom against the feudal lords. Unlike many towns in continental Europe, the English hadn’t gained their independence yet by the means of bloody wars and uprisings. This was because the king was too powerful for them to begin an open struggle against him. As a rule, the townspeople came to an agreement with the king. These agreements were known as charters.

Town Charters

Both merchants and craftsmen would agree to pay for the use of the land in money instead of doing services for the lord. Little by little the townspeople also gained rights in exchange for monetary payments. In return for the money that was paid to him, the king would grant the townspeople a charter. This was a written agreement that listed things that the townspeople could do without having to ask for permission from the king. Some townspeople had to pay a large sum of money for charter only once, but others had to make a certain payment once a year.

A charter would state that townsmen were free from services that they formerly rendered. They also had the right to choose their own council, with a chairman who would be known as a mayor. One charter granted in London in 1215 stated:

“Know you that we have granted to our citizens of our city of London that they may elect for themselves a mayor of themselves every year who shall be faithful to us…and that it shall be lawful to them to remove him at the end of the year, and substitute another if they so wish, or retain the same man.”

The town council would make laws and would punish people who had disobeyed the laws. The townsmen now had their own judges who would administer justice in town and their own officials that collected the dues owed to the king. Townsmen were also allowed to carry on trade and to hold markets and fairs too. From part of the charter to Portsmouth, England that was granted in 1194:

“Know you that the citizens of Portsmouth have every week in the year on one day in the week, on Thursday, a market with all the liberties and free customs which our citizens of Winchester or Oxford or others of our lands have…” “And we have established and given and granted a fair to continue, once a year, for fifteen days…”

Many other towns also gained the right of free trade. A charter granted to Oxford in 1156 says that citizens:

“Shall be quit of toll and passage and all the customs throughout all England and Normandy by land and water, by the coast of the sea…”

Charters like these were often won from not just the king but also from other owners of town lands. If a baron or an abbot of a neighboring monastery was in need of money he would sell his rights to the townsmen. However, great monasteries near to towns that were rising up in many places, charters were won with great difficulty. The history of these towns had been marked by bitter conflicts, sometimes with armed uprisings of the townsmen. A chronicler wrote in 1327 that the townsmen of Bury, supported by the villeins of surrounding villages had stormed the monastery and set up a town commune. It took the abbot six months to suppress the commune and re-establish his power over the town.

In the 12th century, many towns like London, Canterbury, Dover, Lincoln, Nottingham, Norwich, Oxford, Newcastle, Southampton, Bristol, and others would have charters and also were self-governing. The king had granted many privileges to the capital of the country. Londoners who took over the local government not only of the city but also of the whole county of Middlesex appointed a sheriff and a judge. These people would go about collecting all of the dues that had to be paid by inhabitants of the county to the king. In return, every year the Londoners would have to pay 300 pounds of sterling to the king. Besides this, court trials for the people were to be held in London. They also were released from military service and were granted the right of free trade throughout England. All of these privileges had favored the growth of the capital, becoming one of the greatest centers of trade in all of Europe. By the end of the 13th century almost all towns, of any size, except for a select few that were under monastic rule had one certain measure of self-government. The most important right that was gained by the townsmen was freedom.

At first when the villeins would run away to towns the lord of the manor of which he had been a part of had the right to demand his return. Soon though, growing towns felt a lack of laborers, and eventually they began to ignore the lord’s orders. Gradually town charters made it a rule that a serf who had ran away from his lord could become free after having lived in the town for a year and one day. The landlord was forced then to regard all runaway serfs as free citizens of the town. A charter of 1157 stated:

“I confirm to the citizens that if any remain in my city of Lincoln for a year and a day without challenge from any claimant and pay the customs of the city…he shall remain peacefully in the city of Lincoln as my free man.”

People in the 12th and 13th centuries of many English towns had become free. They were free from the old feudal obligations and were responsible for the order and government in town. The liberation from feudal power would speed up the growth of towns and many would become important centers of crafts and trade.

The Crafts of the Medieval Town

People who had lived on the lord’s land were very often harassed by the landlord who was at the head of a body of retainers that attacked and plundered the town. How could the townspeople defend their town against their feudal lord? Town craftsmen would start to produce goods only for orders and for sale. Where from and how could they attract their customers? These and other problems were what the townspeople would face.

A medieval workshop was a small-scale enterprise, it would occupy a small room and only a few people would work in it. There was a master-craftsman, one or two journeymen, and two or three apprentices. As a rule, members of the master’s family would work in the workshop as well. There was no machinery in the workshop, only primitive hand instruments: knives, hammers, drills, files or hand-operated tools like a hand-loom and hand-grindstone. It was all based on manual labor.

What a 13th Century Blacksmith Shop Interior Might Have Looked Like

Although the master-craftsman had been the owner of the tools and instruments, as well as raw materials and ready articles, the master-craftsman would also work side by side with the men that he had employed. The master-craftsman would know all the secrets of his trade and could produce goods of a high quality with his primitive instruments. He also devoted all of his life to his special craft. For an example of this, a blacksmith would know only his articles, an armor would never try to produce what a blacksmith did. As a rule, the sons in a family would inherit their father’s trade and secrets of that trade would be passed down from one generation to the next. Through long training and experience a craftsman acquired a great skill and mastered his craft to perfection. His skillful fingers would make up for the imperfection of his instruments.

It would take many years to become a good craftsman. Any young boy who had wanted to learn a craft had to become an apprentice to a master, and be known as an apprentice. He would have no right to leave his master before he had completed his apprenticeship. An apprentice would live with his master of whom would feed him, provide him with clothing and shoes, and promised to teach him all secrets of his craft. In apprenticeship he would do the lesser skilled jobs in the workshop and also had to help with housework in his master’s home. The following was the typical indenture of apprenticeship:

“This indenture made between John Gibbs of Penzance in the county of Cornwall of the one part and John Goffe, Spaniard, of the other part, witnesses that the aforesaid John Goffe had put himself to the aforesaid John Gibbs to learn the craft of fishing, and to stay with him as apprentice and to serve him for eight years.

Throughout the term the aforesaid John Goffe shall well and faithfully serve the aforesaid John Gibbs and Agnes his wife as his master and lord, shall keep their secrets, shall everywhere willingly do their lawful and honorable commands, shall do his master no injury, shall not waste his master’s goods nor lend them to any man without his special command.

And the aforesaid John Gibbs and Agnes his wife shall teach, train and inform John Goffe, their apprentice, in the craft of fishing in the best way they know; they shall find for the same John, their apprentice, food, clothing, linen and woollen and shoes, sufficiently, during the term aforesaid.”

The life of an apprentice was very hard. He would be bound to working for his master for seven or even more years, during this time he was at the mercy of his master who would often scold and beat him very hard. A document of one town court states:

“Thomas and William Sewale, sons of Thomas Sewale of Canterbury, who had been apprenticed to John Sharpe made the following complaint: their master’s wife Margaret had fed them insufficiently, had beaten them maliciously and struck William on the left eye so violently that he lost the sight of that eye.”

If an apprentice had protested or refused to serve his master he would be tried by the town court. Yet another court document reads:

“Roger, son of Richard Warmwell, apprentice of Emma, widow of William Hatfield, was committed to Newgate…He was rebellious, refused to serve her, and was unwilling to be punished by her in the proper way that he should be.”

At times an apprentice boy would also run away from his master. If the master would find him, he’d be brought back and would have to work until the term of his apprenticeship was complete. A document representing this follows:

“William Batyngham has been arrested and detained in prison in Salisbury at the suit of William Beverley—of London, for he was his apprentice and departed from his service here in London, and has been the whole time wandering in many towns, in Winchester, Bristol and elsewhere, so that his master could not find him until now.”

After seven years an apprentice would become a workman, also known as a journeyman. Journeyman comes from the french word journee, meaning day. They were named as such because they would be paid by the day. For his hard work he would receive wages, and was free to change masters and even look for work in another town if he so chose. Many would choose to work for a few years after becoming a journeyman under the same master. After a few years a journeyman would hope to become a master and also hoped to save up enough money to open his own workshops where they could employ other skilled workmen and take on their own apprentices. A journeyman who had already mastered the trade would become his master’s right hand man. He would help the master in all of his work from beginning to end.

What it may have looked like when blacksmiths were working in the 13th century shop

Only a few men would work in the workshop, as stated before, and the working process was not divided into separate operations among them. In other words, there was no division of labor within a workshop, an example of this is when an armorer would perform all of his operations from the starting process of smelting and finishing with design that had involved highly elaborate metalwork. The medieval workshop would only use manual labor, there was no division of labor, because of this labor productivity of the medieval craftsman was very low. It would take a skilled locksmith a total of fourteen days just to make one good lock.

At first there was no clear division between a craftsman who had made goods and a trader who sold them. Both were performed by the same person. Customers of a master-craftsman would order what they had wanted from him and the work was done to order, there were also some finished articles in the workshop and any customer who had called could see them and buy them if they so wished. It was in this way that the workshop had become a kind of shop for the sale of goods.

The earliest shops in towns were craftsman workshops. The shop had a great shutter that was let down in the daytime so that goods could be displayed on it. Goods were also hung out to display around the open window and door to attract customers. A journeyman could be seen working inside, and apprentice boys would stand by the shutters outside to make sure that nothing was stolen and to shout to the passerby: “What do you lack? Come buy, come buy! They would cry. “New shoes!” “Hot pies!” and so on. A bright sign such as a bog wooden boot painted blue would be hung above the door of the shoemaker’s shop, or a big horseshoe above the door of the forge so as to attract customers.

As the population of towns had grown and more goods were demanded, both crafts and trade grew as well. Craftsmen began to devote themselves entirely to their crafts. As time went on they began to free themselves, not only from agricultural work, but also the duty and selling of ready articles. Alongside craftsmen were traveling merchants who had already existed during the Anglo-Saxon period and those who brought goods from other countries. As time went on tradesmen engaging in the home trade would appear. They would make up a special class of men who would devote all of their time and energy to the business of trading. Trade and handicrafts would gradually become the occupation of many different groups of townspeople.

The Rise of Guilds

With master-craftsmen came guilds. These guilds were made up of master-craftsmen who had lived in the same town and were united into societies. They would call these groups a craft guild. Each craft would have its own guild, there were guilds of weavers, dyers, shoemakers, hatters, bakers, glassmakers and more. There were many guilds of smiths, their craft was very important especially in the times when things were made by hand. In the Domesday Book, six forges had already been in the town of Hereford and are mentioned as well as those of ironsmiths and coppersmiths. Later there would be guilds of armorers, goldsmiths, locksmiths, and more. The merchants of a town would form a society that would be known as a merchant guild.

Many English surnames are in reference to the trades or occupations of those whom they were given. Such names as Baker, Butcher, Chapman, Wright, Fletcher, Tailor and Smith are occupational surnames and there are dozens of more. It was in the time of guilds that the use of occupational surnames had become common.

The right to organize a guild was granted to the first towns by the owner of the land who may have been the king, an abbot, or some other powerful lord. The following extract is from a charter of Henry II to Oxford’s shoemakers that was granted in 1175:

“Know you that I have granted and confirmed to the shoemakers of Oxford all the liberties and customs which they had in the time of King Henry, my grandfather and that they have their guild, so that none carry on their trade in the town of Oxford, except he is of that guild…For this grant and confirmation, however, the shoemakers ought to pay me every year an ounce of gold.”

Nobody had the right to produce or sell any goods in a town if they were not a member of a guild. If a stranger would come in from another town just fifty miles away he would be looked upon as a foreigner. At the gate of the town he would be questioned by a gate-keeper very closely about what business he had there before he was admitted. If he had come to town with anything to sell in the market he would have to pay a heavy toll to do so. It was in this way that many “foreigners” were kept away and trade was reserved for townsmen.

Each guild in town would have their own guildhall, where the master-craftsmen would meet from time to time. A charter that they would adopt for the guild would oblige all guild-members to follow its rules. Rules for good workmanship were set up and would require a certain standard for finished products. These charters stated that all members of the guild had to use high-quality, raw materials to produce goods to meet the guild’s standard. An example of this is with a weaver’s guild that determined the exact width of cloth, its color, number of threads in the wrap of cloth, quality of the raw materials, and so on. All articles that were produced by weavers were to meet the same standard. Hastily made or badly produced goods were forbidden and there were severe punishments for those that broke the rules.

The master-craftsmen would elect elders who would be at the head of the guild, and who saw to it that all guild-members had followed the rules and produced goods of the right quality. If a guild member did bad work it would be taken from them and destroyed, and the member would be fined. If he would do it again he was expelled from the guild, which would ruin him, as he could no longer work at his trade. Guilds would fix prices on articles, and guildsmen had no right to sell articles at whatever price they so chose. Guild officials saw to it that customers were charged fair prices. Guild charters would designate how many journeymen and apprentices that the master could employ and how many hand-operated tools could be kept in workshop. Other rules would not allow the craftsmen to work at night or on holidays. These rules were made in order to help each small producer sell his goods and to prevent the craftsmen from competing with one another.

Medieval Merchant House in Southampton

Guilds were of great importance to the 11th-13th Centuries. The life of a craftsman was bound up with the guilds. The guild was like a military organization as each formed its municipal guard detachment and levy of guildsmen would fight together against the enemies of their town.

Guilds were also a religious society. A merchant or a craftsman was supposed to be a Christian. Guildsmen would attend church together and had their own saint that they considered to be the patron of their craft. They often built their own chapel, where a priest would conduct services in honor of the guild’s patron saint. On holy days the guild would arrange festivities to go along with them, and all guildsmen would contribute to the church.

They also had a special fund that would help a needy craftsman and their family when a guildsman fell into debt because of illness or an accident. They would help him to start anew, and if a guildsman died, his guild would take care of his wife and children. Besides this, the guild would also protect its members from any competition by a non-guildsman.

In the 11th to the 13th centuries, the natural economy had still existed in England and the large majority of the population had produced all the necessities of life for themselves. This is why the demand of goods at the market was so low and competition of non-guildsmen was dangerous. It was very important for townsmen to produce articles of higher quality than those that were produced by village artisans and to exercise absolute control over the town market. The guild also exacted high tolls on artisans and merchants that would come from other towns, so as to protect the guildsmen from their competition. It would also try to prevent competition among its own men as well.

A guild would forbid those that were competing to win over their competitors customers. They also would limit the production of each workshop so to ensure the sale of goods for every craftsman. This system secured favorable conditions for the development of crafts and trade in these centuries. It would unit the town artisans and helped them to start and practice their craft and helped them defend their town from predatory raids of the feudal lords. As a result, the number of craftsmen in towns increased and newer crafts would soon appear. An English craftsman became highly skilled and some of the goods he produced were among the best in Europe. For instance, at foreign markets, the scarlet that was produced in Lincoln, or blue woolen stuff of Beverley were famous for their high quality alongside the best well-known Italian and Flemish articles.


Not everything was good in the 13th century either, but the world was growing. Guilds, like any other organization, had good things that came from them as well as bad. People will worry today, in 2016, about small business owners going under and the world losing part of its past, but guilds, to me, seem that they did the same thing for people of that century. In order to progress we have to let things grow, but at the same time, we should never forget about where we came from. Before this time, most people did not have surnames. They instead would have been known by where they were from. For an example I will use my dad’s first name, Edward, and where he was born, Pittsburgh. So before this time he would have been Edward of Pittsburgh or Edward de Pittsburgh. Sounds pretty funny, mostly just because I know him today as Edward Siceloff. By the 13th century some people took surnames to define their craft, Edward de Pittsburgh could have become Edward Smith. My grandfather was a machinist so I am guessing he probably would have been involved with smithing, which would have been what my father took on as well, hence the name of Edward Smith. Much different than what my father is now, and far far different than what my brother is.

Without our ancestors from the 13th century, without these guilds, and their crafts that they took on, who would we be today? Would have ever had bakeries? Would we have had firearms to defend ourselves? What would our names be, how would we define ourselves? We are who we are today because of those that lived before us.

Published by: csiceloff85

Hello, my name is Christina Siceloff. I am 31 years old and grew up outside of Pittsburgh, PA. I've been doing family history of my own since 2002, but have started doing it for others as well in the past few years here and there. I love history, and also like music, movies, and video games. I have an associates degree in general studies with concentrations in humanities and social sciences. I also went to school for my EMT certification and plan on one day completing that as well, that darn written exam lol. I also was a volunteer firefighter and plan to join back up with that sometime too.

Categories UncategorizedTags, , , , 4 Comments

4 thoughts on “Life in the 13th Century”

  1. A very interesting and detailed article. Good to read more about Guilds, as I was always interested in them in London, where there is still the famous Guildhall, in The City. They raised militias to fight for Parliament in the Civil War, and had a great deal of influence in the City of London.
    A look at the work of stone-masons can be found in this long but interesting novel, about the building of Salisbury Cathedral.
    Best wishes, Pete. (I hope you are feeling better)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am feeling a bit better thank you. Also I hope to do another article about guilds cause I found them interesting. Where is the Guildhall at in london, when I was there in 2010 I hadn’t known a lot about guilds but walked all over the city. I didn’t know where I was going when I was first there so one trip in the city I was from Marlbone train station to Victoria station got totally lost and walked all over the city trying to figure out where to go.


    1. London is a big and confusing place when you are a stranger. The Guildhall is in The City of London, where you will also find St Paul’s Cathedral, The Museum of London, and The Barbican complex. It is the ancient centre of London, and governed separately from the rest of the capital. It’s on the other side of London from Victoria and Buckingham Palace, heading east in the direction of Tower Bridge, and The Tower of London.
      Here are some links.
      Regards, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s