Urban Living: Burghers

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Urban Living: Burghers


Who Was a Burgher? Burgher is a synonym for many words used in modern English, including bourgeoisie, burgess, citizen, and urban elite. Although generally not aristocrats or nobles, medieval burghers enjoyed a special legal and economic status because they were citizens of a particular town. To become a citizen in many medieval towns, a person had to be male or born into a citizen family, reside in the city a certain number of years, be engaged in a respectable business, pay a substantial entry fee, and have other citizens vouch for his character. By no means was every resident of a medieval city a citizen, and the exact percentage varied from place to place. Moreover, although their status might not be documented officially, burghers were often a special class of citizen. Generally the most prosperous, prestigious, and politically influential citizens, urban burghers dominated their towns, becoming almost urban lords. As such, their standard of living was substantially higher than that of their fellow residents.

Burghers’ Houses. As in villages, homes in medieval cities were initially laid out with substantial yards. For example, lots of 40 by 80 feet and 50–60 by 100 feet were common in twelfth-century Regensburg, Germany. Burghers often owned buildings scattered throughout the town, and it was not uncommon that a burgher’s primary residence was built on several lots. As with medieval castles and peasant homes, construction materials depended on what was available and traditional in a region. Although southern European burghers had stone houses from the early Middle Ages, in northern Europe many burghers’ houses were made of wood. The mark of a prosperous burgher became the construction of a stone house, a pattern found throughout Europe by the twelfth century. These houses were frequently long and narrow, to fit on a city lot. They had several stories and, when the water table permitted, a cellar to store household supplies. Business was conducted on the ground floor, while the upper floors were reserved for household members or privileged guests. Styles differed dramatically from region to region. In southern Europe, for example, it was customary to build a stone house around an open central courtyard, continuing the style of the ancient Romans. In medieval northern Europe such a courtyard, with a heavy wooden gate, might be built at the primary entrance, but it was more common for burgher houses to open directly onto the street, with the entire property fenced and entrances to the storage areas opening off back alleys. By the thirteenth century the number of windows in the upper stories had increased, and glass was being used to control drafts. Moreover, by this time increased attention was being paid to the facade facing the busiest street, and wooden trim and sculptural elements were added. The ground floor, however, remained quite stout with no windows and thick wooden doors reinforced with iron—providing some protection in case of an urban riot or a fight between rival clans.

Decoration. In matters of decoration and taste, urban burghers imitated the secular and ecclesiastical lords around them. Painted walls, embroidered wall hangings, and tiled floors all moved in and out of style in the course of the Middle Ages. Only the richest merchants could afford decorations as good or expensive as those of the upper nobility. Prized possessions were silver candlesticks and plates and thick, elaborately decorated linens; inventories made of burghers’ possessions after their deaths included the material, ornamentation, and wear of each piece of linen in a household. The rooms in a burgher’s house most likely to have extensive embellishments were the public room—where the master of the house received his clients, hosted dinners, and otherwise presented a public facade—and the master’s bedroom. The supplies for a kitchen might be costly but they were rarely decorative. The other rooms in a medieval burgher’s home had undifferentiated functions, as suggested by furnishings and decorations. In many cases, it was a question of where to use the available resources most productively.

Furnishings. Furnishings also followed the pattern of those in medieval castles, although the number and quality of the pieces were never as great as those of the upper nobility. Chests were the most common objects, while beds were some of the largest and most costly furnishings. Furniture was generally wooden and of local manufacture. Only the wealthiest families could purchase large objects that had to be shipped. Metal objects were especially valuable and listed as such in inventories. Chests could be carved, painted, and gilded, and burghers availed themselves of all these techniques to add color and luxury to their homes. Certain chests, such as the Italian marriage chests known as cassone, could have elaborate scenes of nature or true love painted on them. Although burghers often patronized different painters for the decoration of furniture and for wall or canvas paintings, some workshops produced both sorts of decorative objects and others as well.

The Yard. Many households in early medieval cities started with tofts much like those of the medieval peasant. As the population grew and space was at a premium, these lands were sold, and by the fourteenth century generally the only members of the urban lay community who had substantial yards within the city walls were burghers. (Ecclesiastical communities often had their own enclosed compounds inside city walls.) The burgher’s yard contained a variety of outbuildings and reflected the close connections many medieval burghers still had with the countryside. There were sheds to store farm tools, brewing vats, and wine presses. Small and large barns housed horses, pigs, and poultry. A garden provided herbs and vegetables for

household consumption, as did several fruit trees. The cesspit was generally placed in the far corner of the yard, and in an especially prosperous and fortunate household, there might even be a private well. Depending on a burgher’s needs, other outbuildings might exist as well; for example, a dyer might have a separate dye shop in his yard at some distance from the residence. Stone walls enclosed the burgher’s yard to prevent theft.

Food and Guests. A burgher’s diet had much in common with that of medieval monks and nobles, although it probably lacked the variety and luxury. Bread was the staple and was supplemented by dairy products, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and beer or wine. Meat was served whenever possible, generally four to five times a week. Burghers made extensive use of spices and subscribed to the same dietary theories and practices as the nobility. Like other medieval people, burghers observed set fast days when meat was prohibited. Burghers also participated in banquets, especially those hosted by craft masters or their religious confraternity. At such festivities they strove for the level of luxury achieved by the upper nobility and clergy. In general, though, there were fewer courses; the presentation was simpler; and the ingredients were usually local and seasonal.

Dressing Like a Citizen. Burghers had the same basic clothing as medieval peasants and nobles: braies, shirts, hose, tunics, mantles, cloaks, shoes, belts, and knives. Like the noble he imitated, a burgher attempted to wear clothes made with fine tailoring and fabrics. The cloth was generally professionally woven fabrics, and clothes were custom-made for the wearer, unlike those of many other urban residents, who made do with secondhand garments. For daily work, medieval burghers favored woolen tunics and hose in muted colors, but at a festival or banquet they often wore furs and dramatically colored clothing embellished with embroidery. Like many nobles, however, the burgher owned only a few outfits. A typical wardrobe might include several pairs of braies, shirts, and hose, a couple of tunics and cloaks, a basic mantle designed for daily wear, a more elaborate festival mantle, one pair of boots and another of shorter leather slippers, several belts, and a good knife. Women’s clothes were also like those of the middle nobility with variations similar to those for men’s wardrobes. Jewelry, used as decorations or fasteners, was a sign of the wearer’s status and could represent substantial expense. Men and women wore several rings when they could afford them, and belts, scabbards, and clasps had filigree work or jewels set into them. Hats were both practical and fashionable and were made of various materials and with different degrees of decoration. Feathers could be put in a hatband; silver- or gold-thread trim might be added to the rim; and embroidery might embellish the crown. The fashions worn by medieval burghers were a visible statement of their social status and aspirations.

Controlling Style: Sumptuary Legislation. To protect the outward signs of their status, burghers attempted to regulate clothing practices. These ordinances, known as sumptuary laws, limited certain fabrics to certain social classes and limited the value of clothing that could be worn by people in different professions. Only burghers could have jeweled scabbards, and only burgher women might wear velvet hats. Makeup was generally condemned for all social classes. Certain colors were prohibited to particular groups and professions; for example, many sumptuary laws dictated that only town councilmen could wear clothes in the color of the town livery. Fines and confiscations awaited anyone who broke these laws. In fact, an additional point of evidence at a trial could be that someone dressed above his or her station, an act thought to illustrate that the accused was a threat to society. Despite the existence of such laws, the frequency with which they were repeated, particularly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, suggests that medieval urban residents dressed to limits of their ability rather than the limits of the law.


Joseph Gies and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval City (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).

David Herlihy, Medieval Households (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985).

David A. Hinton, “’Clothing’ and the Later Middle Ages,” Medieval Archaeology, 43 (1999): 172–182.

John Schofield, Medieval London Houses (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

Claire Sponsler, “Narrating the Social Order: Medieval Clothing Laws,” Clio, 21 (1992): 265–283.

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