Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.
The rise and fall of the middle class has been a big deal politically and economically for centuries. Just listen to political debates in the United States today and you'll hear a lot about how the middle class is declining. Let's flashback to medieval Europe where an opposite trend was emerging.
We're talking about middle class merchants and craftworkers who were known as burghers: those who sold products (such as a baker) or who provided a service (like those of a blacksmith). As these burghers emerged, they became situated between the peasant class and the noble class in European society.
Burghers were described by this name not because they made tasty burgers (although some of them may have cooked up some good food), but because the name burgher originates in other languages as a citizen of a borough. A borough in this case is another way of saying a town or city.
Rise of Towns and Cities
Even the concept of a city or town was evolving during this time. During the High Middle Ages (approximately 1100-1300), the population of Europe was on a major upswing. Feudalism, which was the predominant economic mode in Europe, was producing enough food to keep people fed, even with growing numbers of mouths to feed. A feudal system meant that many people worked on the land as peasants, while nobles owned those lands and received the benefits of this ownership.
During this time, more people were congregating in urban centers. If you imagine that a whole bunch of people are headed to your town, you might start seeing dollar signs, thinking that now's a good time to go into business. Well, the burghers - the merchants - did in fact often do well because of this trend of the rise in city life.
A Money Economy
Over time, these trends moved European economies from ones based on land ownership to a money economy. This was an important time in history to have cash on hand. Owning all of the land in Europe wasn't going to help you if you didn't have access to some liquid assets that could purchase goods and services.
This is a bit like your landlord suddenly needing to borrow money from you. Quite a turnaround of events! Suddenly, we have a middle class citizenry that is gaining momentum and becoming even wealthier and more powerful. They often held local political positions and would go on to play a greater role in the larger governments in their regions.
Ultimately, the burghers would develop into a richer class. But first, they needed to make their mark on medieval Europe in a way that still echoes today.
We can't talk about the burghers without mentioning the emergence of craft guilds. Not just anyone could decide that they wanted to become a merchant in town. As you might imagine, established business owners wanted a say in just who got to sell the same services and at what quality and what price.
For instance, let's say you're new in town and have been practicing your baking skills at home. You now want to open a new bakery! Not so fast. There's a process for that. There are also standards and pricing information that you need to know. And by the way, you'll be starting out as an apprentice, not as a bakery owner.
The organization responsible for overseeing a particular craft or trade was known as a craft guild. This was in the interest of the burghers because it allowed them to determine how many competitors could enter their territory. Plus, they could ensure that the quality of that particular product or services was maintained across the board, and they could play a role in monitoring working conditions in their field.
The legacy of craft guilds can even be seen in how some forms of modern labor unions were created to protect the workers in the skilled trades. While the organization and purpose of unions is distinct, the guild system was an important precursor.
The emergence of the burgher class during the High Middle Ages was largely a result of the growing population in Europe and the rise of towns and the businesses within them. During this period, wealth was no longer solely grounded in land ownership. Wealth was often gained through the money economy, creating a middle class that would grow in power over time.
The burghers who lived and worked in these towns and cities were responsible for the development of craft guilds which provided regulations in how businesses would operate and even who could enter that trade. By the end of this era, merchants would hold great political power and have a legacy on European society and beyond.
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