Medieval Towns, Trade, And Travel, by Lynne Elliott
When one thinks about the Middle Ages, towns, trade, and travel are not the most obvious things to think of. After all, if one was seeking to write about the normal experience of life in Europe (and many other places) during this time period, there would be discussions about village life and the existence of the peasantry. Sadly, most people do not consider farming and the patterns and rhythms of agricultural life to be a very interesting subject, so even in a time when a substantial majority of humanity lived in rural areas and loved off of the land, this particular book offers a look at aspects of life that are of greater interest to many people than the existence that was most familiar at the time (and long afterward). That is not to say that it is wrong for people to focus on areas that are outside of the norm, but it is worth at least pointing out the sort of experience that was most common, so that one can see just how small the element was that kept Europe connected to global trade and that allowed education to survive even if it was not widely distributed throughout society.
This particular book is a bit over 25 pages long and covers a wide variety of aspects of medieval urban and itinerant life with a broad brush but with some insight for young readers. The author begins with the growing towns of the later medieval period (rather than the dying urban life of the first part of the Middle Ages), along with aspects of town defense and what it was like for those people who lived in town. The author discusses craftsmen and tradesmen as well as religion and education (the two were closely connected), and the markets and fairs that provided ways for people to profit from the trading of the times. The author talks about the measuring of goods as well as the use of money. The author discusses the way that people could have fun at fairs as well as the international trade routes of the silk and spice routes between Europe and Asia. This leads the author to discuss other travelers besides those she has already mentioned like nobles, pilgrims, and crusaders, as well as the transportation of the time. Finally, the author concludes with a discussion about explorers like Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Cheng Ho, and Christopher Columbus (although the latter two were more Renaissance figures than people from the Middle Ages), before closing with a glossary and index.
There are at least two potential issues with this sort of book and its approach. As already noted, the author’s approach focuses on town dwellers, merchants, nobles, and religious elites who all traveled and tended to live in more urbanized places (at least part of the time for nobles and more often for the rest of the people mentioned) tends to skew the understanding of the reader towards a style of living that was very much the minority during the Middle Ages when 90% or more of the people lived on the land. In addition to this, the book focuses on the late Middle Ages and even shoehorns the early Renaissance into the Middle Ages. It can be argued that it was the rise of urbanism and the revitalization of towns and trade and urban life that allowed Europe to leave the Middle Ages and advance towards its period of dominance around the world, and so it is more than a little bit unusual to see a book that seeks to discuss urban and merchant life in the framework of the Middle Ages.