Burgher Class: Definition & History

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

Let's look at the rise of a middle class group of people known as the burghers. You'll gain a sense of their role in medieval times as well as their legacy beyond it.

Medieval Burghers

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.

Craft Guilds

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.

Craft guilds created a process for how a person could rise up the ranks as they gained in skill.
A baker with an apprentice

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