Villages. Christian Europe was full of villages and walled cities. Villages typically had a population of three hundred to five hundred people who lived in windowless houses with thatched roofs. Villages were relatively isolated but were usually not far from a market town or city. Peas-ants in villages were self-sufficient, which means that virtually all of their needs were supplied locally. Most villages were dependent on the local production of grain, the staple product of villagers' diets, but villagers also needed to produce other essential crops. Frequently the local land or climate was not optimal for the production of staple items, but villagers would continue to produce poor exemplars of staples rather than live without them. Agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin was based on the same three crops that had dominated in ancient times: wheat, olive oil, and grapes for wine. A plow that simply scratched the surface was used for the light soils, and grains were planted in alternating years. The heavier soils north of the Alps were well suited to a wide range of cereal crops such as wheat, rye, oats, and barley. Fields were farmed in a three-field rotation whereby one field was planted with a summer crop, one with a winter crop, and one was left fallow. This system was well suited to maintaining livestock who could pull a heavier plow and also provide manure to fertilize the fields. Local towns and cities relied on village-based grain production. At the end of the sixteenth century, grain from the Baltics was sufficient to free the Dutch farmers from grain production, and thus the Low Countries became the first to develop extensive specialization in nongrain crops.
Towns and Cities. A villager traveling to a city would be shocked to see the high stone ramparts, built out of quarry stone, that surrounded towns and cities. Urbanites lived, ate, and dressed in a manner that was drastically different from that of villagers. The contrast between urban and rural was great, and cities went to great lengths to monitor and restrict visitors from outside the city walls. Entry gates were closed at night and night watchers walked the streets looking for noncitizen vagrants as well as keeping a watch for potential fires. Beyond the walls of a city lay a river, fields, various buildings of religious orders, and the city hospital. Ill people went to the hospital not to be cured but rather to be isolated from the other residents until the illness passed or the person died. Within the city walls streets frequently rambled without any logical pattern because urban planners were generally not employed until late in the Renaissance and Reformation.
Types of Cities. Towns varied considerably, but all towns were distinguishable from villages based on legal, economic, and strategic factors: towns had courts and a hierarchy of church officials; towns housed markets, artisans, handworkers, and a school or university; and towns were always fortified. Free city-states and ordinary cities were similar in shape and size, but they differed considerably
in terms of governance within the city and control over the surrounding countryside. Free city-states were autonomous self-governing political entities that controlled the agricultural lands around their walls. Ordinary cities were controlled by aristocrats who also controlled the surrounding agricultural lands. One ruler could control many cities, but usually the city where the ruler resided, known as the court city, was the most prosperous in a territory.
Trade. Large urban areas tend to fall along one of two “urban belts.” One flows north-south, from the Netherlands to Italy, and the other moves east-west along the Mediterranean Sea. Trade routes in Europe followed the urban patterns and formed a north-south axis that connected the world of the northern Hansa traders to that of the Mediterranean south, and an east-west corridor that connected the Mediterranean Basin to traders in Asia. Italians monopolized the east-west corridor and dominated the north-south corridor. The Hansa, the northern arm of the north-south corridor, also controlled trade in the Baltic that went east-west. This trade corridor prospered in the sixteenth century as grains from Russia and Poland made their way into urban areas to their west.
Iberian Peninsula. Inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula were isolated from both trade corridors and therefore turned to northern Africa for trade. On the far western edge of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal was initially one of the areas most isolated from European trade. The Portuguese sought trade routes around the southern African Cape and into the Indian Ocean. Their success was a strong impetus for the Spaniards to explore a western route to the Indies. The resulting exploration led to the ability to sail the Atlantic Ocean. As the center of European trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, the role of Portugal shifted from remote outpost to the center of shipping.