Skip to Content

What Was Life Like in a Medieval City?

What Was Life Like in a Medieval City?

The medieval time in human history, between 476 and 1453 A.D., is one of the most intriguing times for young minds and scholars.

At this time, there were different types of settlements ranging from villages to big cities, and the life of peasants within these could differ substantially.

Below I will explain what I know about life within a medieval city, including work, living arrangements, and other things.

Depending on your class, life in a medieval city could consist of waking up, working, and eating in the same room, or it could involve a bit more if you owned a successful business. If you made something at home, you would likely leave only to sell or buy goods unless there was a social event.

Life in a medieval city could look quite different for the different classes, and the amount of money you make from trade will likely influence how you live.

A significant portion of the lower classes stayed in terrible houses. It would often have only one room for a whole family, while merchants that made more money could afford much nicer houses that could house their families and businesses.

The Life Of A Wealthy Person In A Medieval City

To be a wealthy peasant in medieval times meant that you were most likely a peasant of the “freeman” class, which meant that you were not connected or indebted to a lord or noble[1].

Freemen were the most likely of the peasant class to become wealthy and would often have jobs such as merchants, craftspeople, or others because they could travel more due to not being bound to an area by a noble.

Though this isn’t the only way merchants arose[2], it is likely that farmers and other people staying in villages made use of freemen to sell their crops or goods in return for a fee, and this is how they became merchants. 

Merchants often had better housing in cities than other peasants and tradespeople, with many believing that some houses could be two stories, with the ground level being where the business was. At the same time, the top would be the housing for the family.

The life of more prosperous peasants in medieval times would likely have much more movement than that of a lower-class or poorer peasant.

For example, merchants in this time would often trade between markets and different cities than the one they stayed in and would thus often spend long periods on the road between different cities or looking for more business opportunities[3].

The women of this class, however, were more likely to live similar lives to those peasants who had less money, often spending most of their time in and around the house.

There were some job opportunities for women of this time, some being shop-keepers for merchant husbands or doing other things such as making and selling clothes.[4]

However, it was much more likely that the women of a house would still be responsible for running the house, including cooking, cleaning, and some other work.

Suppose a child of a wealthy family survived the high infant mortality rate during the start of the medieval period. In that case, it is likely that they, too, stayed at home most of the time, though their parents could more likely afford to buy them toys and allow them to play.

Eventually, the child would grow up and have to learn household duties as a girl or find a trade as a boy.

Later in the medieval period, around 1100 A.D., there were more opportunities for children to receive education, in which case boys from wealthier families would be schooled at a monastery or other institutions, while girls were more likely to receive more basic education at home[5].

A male child of a merchant would likely learn the trade and become a merchant too.

The Life Of A Less Wealthy Person In A Medieval City

Though the life of a wealthy peasant in a medieval city may not seem too bad, if your family was not wealthy, life was probably not very pleasant.

Poorer families in medieval cities likely had to live in one or two rooms of a house, with some houses hosting more than one family at a time. It is also likely that these families would stay in their rooms most of the time as this is where they worked, ate, and slept.[6]

Like wealthier families, the men of low-income families were still the primary breadwinners, doing anything they could to bring in enough money to help their families survive. These men likely did jobs such as blacksmithing, carpentry, or tailoring; though these jobs were important, they weren’t the most well-paying jobs. [7]

Another similarity between the wealthier and less wealthy families is that the woman of a family would likely do household chores such as taking care of children, cooking, and cleaning. However, there were even fewer opportunities for women in these families to get other jobs that would help them climb the social ladder.

If a woman was not a part of a household, which was not uncommon as some parents wanted to save money by letting their daughters fend for themselves, there was a chance she could live at a nunnery.[8]

The women who lived at a nunnery may have received a little compensation for washing clothes or doing other chores while getting a bed and some food. 

It is also likely that, as a child from a less-wealthy family, children would have little to no prospects in life and would have very little chance of getting an education. As with wealthier families, boys often take after their fathers and learn the same trade, and girls may get taught the homemaker’s primary duties.

However, though children from all families were allowed some time to play and have a “normal” childhood, children from less wealthy families were less likely to get gifts or toys.

The Pastimes Of People In A Medieval City

Despite some peasants in medieval cities living rather terrible lives, there were some activities and pastimes people could still enjoy. Even in medieval cities, pubs and alehouses were familiar enough, meaning that some people would naturally flock to these places to relax, have fun, and have a few drinks.

There were also a lot of games that would grow popular between adults and children, and there was even a degree of gambling available.

As the popularity of Christianity grew during the middle ages, there were also a lot of days when peasants would not work and instead celebrate holidays or go to social events. Things like festivals were also quite common, and a lot of eating, drinking, dancing, and games are likely to go hand-in-hand with a festival day.

There were other forms of entertainment, too, since traveling performers weren’t too out of place during these times either. Performers would travel between cities and perform for some coin, food, or a place to sleep.[9]

Living Conditions And Diseases In Medieval Cities

While discussing life within medieval cities, there is more to talk about than the people themselves since things like health, living conditions, and diseases also played a big part in life during those times. Because cities got more extensive and more populated, many problems would affect life in a medieval city, some of which were terrible.

I will first mention the living conditions, something I briefly discussed before. While there was a divide between the wealthy and less wealthy peasants in medieval cities, it can be hard to understand just how much of an effect this had on the living arrangements.

For low-income families, their houses likely got made with dirt floors, which was, in turn, not great for the family’s health.[10]

On the other hand, wealthier families could afford houses with multiple stories, and there was usually some flooring in these houses.

I should mention waste disposal during this time; plumbing and waste disposal weren’t standard in these times, which meant that the already crowded and narrow streets of medieval cities were hazardous and quite disgusting to walk through.

It was a common practice for the house’s waste to be thrown outside into the street or a nearby river. This practice meant that the streets were filthy and littered with off-cuts from meat, human feces, and anything else considered waste during that time. This unhygienic norm caused diseases and pests to run wild in medieval cities.[11]

These dirty streets also meant that many people got sick, which influenced the mortality rate and low life expectancy of people living in medieval cities. However, unless your family was wealthy enough to afford medical care, there was also the chance that these living conditions could cause death for some peasants.

However, just because this was the norm does not mean people living in medieval cities were happy living in such terrible and stinky conditions. There are reports of people complaining about this, though there are few accounts of these complaints leading to action from the higher city management.


Life within the walls of a medieval city was far more complicated than you may think at first glance. With limited opportunity, filthy streets, and some people sleeping in homes with dirt floors, it is fair to say that life was quite hard for these folks.

However, though this was a particularly filthy time, it is interesting to see how things changed even in cities from this time, like London.