There were several types of towns in the Middle Ages. One of these was market towns, first appearing in the 14th-15th centuries. These towns had the right to host markets but did not have the right to build protective walls around the town (a right that free royal towns had). Over the centuries the number of market towns increased and they became the most common type of settlements in medieval Hungary, by the end of the 15th century numbering about 800.
Market towns were usually established on higher areas of marshy plains next to rivers. Their inhabitants were mostly free peasants who made their living out of agriculture. They were constantly fighting the local landlords for their privileges. Though their legal status was ´serf,´ they had the right to take care of their own economic affairs.
The church: one of the centres of the town´s social life
Kings of Medieval Hungary tried to establish good relations with the Church. As part of this fruitful relationship, the monarchs often ordered settlements´ leaders to build churches. Market towns could not exist without churches either. They were usually built in Roman or Gothic style, in the town centres. They were usually simple buildings with a single tower. Their size was determined by the number of inhabitants of the town and its surroundings. The church was usually surrounded by a fence or hedge, the churchyard served as a cemetery.
Besides their religious functions, churches also played an important role in culture and socialisation. Priests were respected members of communities and were often asked to help or give their opinion in serious matters.
The manor (Latin: curia) was the third centre of the town´s life besides the church and the market square. It was the home of the local landlord, his family and servants. The manor was usually built in the town centre, opposite the church. It stood on an easily defensible place surrounded by a palisade or stone walls and ditches (the safety of the lord and his family was an important factor in choosing the suitable site).
The main building was usually several storeys high. The walls were whitewashed, the roof was covered with clay tiles. The additional buildings were used mainly for storage. There was often a vegetable garden within the walls, to provide the family with fresh vegetables.
Economy of market towns
Market towns were not only the administrative and cultural centres of the regions, but also (and mainly) the centres of economy. In the 15th century, 400-500 families inhabited a market town on average.
The majority of the population made their living out of agriculture and livestock farming. They were allowed to sell their surplus at the local marketplace. Wine and animal trade was widespread. Local craftsmen, who made up 15-20% of the population of market towns also sold their goods at the marketplace. Foreign merchants were also allowed to trade there.
Market rights were among the most important privileges of market towns.
The importance of drinking water
Drinking water was also a very important commodity in Medieval settlements. Towns were built next to watercourses and wells were dug to provide the inhabitants with water.
To dig a well, they first excavated a large circular pit. When they reached the aquifer, they placed wooden beams in a circle in the centre of the pit. (Later they used stones or bricks instead of wood.) Then the part outside the beams was filled with the earth that had been dug out. The wall of dug wells was about 1 metre high.
To prevent the water from contamination, wooden roofs were built above the wells. To lift water from the well, a revolving crossbeam was built into the roof structure and a rope coiled around it with a bucket attached to it with a rope.
Urban development entered a new phase in Hungary in the age of the Anjou kings. Several types of towns developed, although much later than in Western Europe. These included free royal towns, mining towns and market towns.
In Hungary, free royal towns were those that had been granted privileges by the king, such as a certain autonomy in local affairs, in an effort to limit the power of the nobility.
Market towns developed from free royal towns in the 14th century. Over the centuries, the number of market towns increased and they became the most common type of locality in medieval Hungary; by the end of the 15th century there were about 800. Market towns were usually founded in higher areas of marshy plains next to rivers.
On the Great Plains of Hungary, we can still find market towns established in the Middle Ages. This animation shows a typical market town in that region. The model was based on a reconstruction of the central Hungarian town of Nyársapát as it would have looked in the 15th century.
The manor was located in the town centre, surrounded by walls and ditches for the protection of the local lord and his family. The first manors were built in the late Arpad era between 1241-1301.
The church was also situated in the town centre. Medieval churches were typically simple structures with a single nave and one tower. They were usually surrounded by a fence or hedge, and according to contemporary laws, church yards served as cemeteries.
The economy of market towns was independent of the local lord. The most important right of these towns was the right to host markets, so the centre of the towns’ economy was the lively market square.
The rest of the town was occupied by peasants’ homes, which were surrounded by fences or hedges. These peasants were subordinate to the local lord, their legal status being that of ´serfs.´ They made a living through agriculture and livestock farming or handicrafts. They raised their livestock in their yards.
Market towns were usually situated next to watercourses. It was important to maintain fresh drinking water, so the common well was a precious property in towns. Although many of the market towns suffered damage during Ottoman rule, they played an important role in the economy of the Kingdom of Hungary even after the Middle Ages.