How did a peasant move into a Medieval European town?

Oct 2017
5
Tucson, AZ
Please pardon my ignorance--definitely not a history buff. These are probably simple questions but I'm having a hard time coming up with detailed answers, and Google isn't really helping me.

I'm wondering how a commoner--or anyone, for that matter--went about moving into a Medieval European town. Let's just say, for the sake of simplicity, that we're talking about Medieval England specifically. How did the commoner get housing and work? Who registered them in the town's ledger so that they would know to collect taxes from them? It all seems too menial a task for someone as important as a lord to handle. So who would handle it, and what was the process like?

Again, I apologize if I'm even wording this ignorantly. And thank you!
 

MG1962a

Ad Honorem
Mar 2019
2,198
Kansas
Please pardon my ignorance--definitely not a history buff. These are probably simple questions but I'm having a hard time coming up with detailed answers, and Google isn't really helping me.

I'm wondering how a commoner--or anyone, for that matter--went about moving into a Medieval European town. Let's just say, for the sake of simplicity, that we're talking about Medieval England specifically. How did the commoner get housing and work? Who registered them in the town's ledger so that they would know to collect taxes from them? It all seems too menial a task for someone as important as a lord to handle. So who would handle it, and what was the process like?

Again, I apologize if I'm even wording this ignorantly. And thank you!
Well first. In that era no one got to move around much.

Assuming for some reason you did have the opportunity to move to a town. The first important thing would be if the town has been declared a borough. If that be the case they were considered self governing and would have their on administrative people to take care of the day to day concerns of a new person arriving in town.

Housing. You bought or built a house. No help from anyone.

The above is specific to England. No idea how the rest of Europe controlled its affairs
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,729
Towns were quite small and most people who lived there had a specific reason for doing so- usually they had some skill other than farming or labor so a peasant working in a town would be not uncommon but actually living there 'as' a peasant would be weird. If young enough a peasant might be apprenticed on some trade or hired as a full time labourer for some business but there were quite few businesses in this period that required unskilled labour that the family which owned the business couldn't provide on their own.

The easier answer might be that a peasant gains a skill by practice and comes to a town to prove his skill at the journeyman level with a money payment or recommendation perhaps from the priory/monastery. Setting up a business without a guild or other connections is impossible- someone attempting to do that would be run out of the town.

If a town existed without a charter the local official would usually be the sheriff responsible for gathering taxes for the local Lord and usually the most hated man because of skimming, extortion, and many conflicts of interest. The sheriff would have little use for a peasant who couldn't pay taxes and if the peasant couldn't prove he was a free man would almost assuredly be treated as a criminal. In a chartered town there would normally be aldermen representing different aspects of the town and as chartered towns raised their own taxes any person living in the town was expected to contribute so an unskilled peasant just wouldn't be allowed to live there.

Really most of the time peasants were rural up until there ceased to be 'market' towns and with the plagues the need for labour- even unskilled labour- was so great the previous social stratifications broke down and the laws changed to reflect this. So mid 14th century it might be possible for a peasant to move into the home of a man who had died of plague if they could claim even some partial skill at whatever craft that man had practised. There are some stories of fostering and various training arrangements when so many apprenticeships were broken due to one or both of the master/apprentice dying as well the wool industry and other crafts were growing swiftly enough that the prior guild system was starting to break down as it simply couldn't produce the amount of trained labour there was demand for.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,916
"Stadluft mach frei!" — City air makes you free.

In the Germans lands it was conventionally recognized that if a serf ran away to town, and managed to maintain himself there for a year and a day, then his serf status was broken. Typically he would gain citizenship in the town.

Mind, town authorities tended to know rather well who was set up where. Scroungers and general trouble makers should expect eviction.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,147
Portugal
Please pardon my ignorance--definitely not a history buff. These are probably simple questions but I'm having a hard time coming up with detailed answers, and Google isn't really helping me.

I'm wondering how a commoner--or anyone, for that matter--went about moving into a Medieval European town. Let's just say, for the sake of simplicity, that we're talking about Medieval England specifically. How did the commoner get housing and work? Who registered them in the town's ledger so that they would know to collect taxes from them? It all seems too menial a task for someone as important as a lord to handle. So who would handle it, and what was the process like?

Again, I apologize if I'm even wording this ignorantly. And thank you!
No idea about England. In Portugal that situation would be a bit uncommon. But about housing the fellow could rent one, if one was avaiable and he had money. The have records of renting houses for some towns. Even the king would have houses to rent at least I recall a situation in Porto. As for work he probably would had previously a contact to work for an artisan.
 
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sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,368
Sydney
unskilled labor would be the first option
if young , the prize would be an apprenticeship
town jobs were held by the traders and artisans , handed down from father to sons (or son in law)
it was a tightly close society , new comer with no capital or connections had no chance to establish themselves
there were some possibilities as small scale traders
but again the lack of starting money made it a marginal occupation
town were quite unhealthy and were a demographic sink , newcomers were needed to replenish the population
if there was large building programs such as churches or municipal buildings some work would be available
else they would be at the limit of starvation
 
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Oct 2017
5
Tucson, AZ
Thank you all so much for your replies! This has been enlightening.

Let me throw a wrench into things by asking a follow-up question. Was there any such thing as, say, a refugee who would migrate from a place of conflict to a place of peace to try to make a new life? This could be a person of any social status, though I’m sure this would be easier for gentry and freemen.

Thanks again!
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,729
Let me throw a wrench into things by asking a follow-up question. Was there any such thing as, say, a refugee who would migrate from a place of conflict to a place of peace to try to make a new life? This could be a person of any social status, though I’m sure this would be easier for gentry and freemen.
Certainly- one of the few constants of human society it that people are always migrating to try and find better lives. The numbers varied considerably thru time and a single solitary person migrating without any social support networks would be very rare but could have occurred especially in times of upheaval and if that person had some skills. Keep in mind that while societies in the medieval era were very closed there were also far fewer people so some random person moving and setting up a small camp on unclaimed lands was possible- just that there were few truly 'unclaimed' lands left. It might take a while for the owners to discover a wanderer and usually the wanderer would be taken for a criminal or a potential criminal and run off but if accommodations could be negotiated that person (almost always a man) would become part of the local community though probably only his great grandchildren might be fully accepted and then only if the family lived by the rules of the local community fully.

More common was that people migrated as a group when refugees and some local official would arrange for lands from them to inhabit in exchange for a portion of their production and acknowledgement of the that Lord's rule and the laws of the land. For most of the medieval era there was more land than people in most places- this did not hold everywhere but was typical for most of England, France, Germanies, Poland, Italy, and places with decent climates.

We have quite a few records of various tradesmen migrating to new areas and also some Jews, clergy, wives, and warriors. We have hardly any indications that solitary travellers without social connections were accepted and in fact most of the time such people were regarded with great suspicion. Tradesmen seem to make up the largest category with trade being the obvious social connector as a distant place might need the skills a tradesmen had to offer and also the long distance connections of reputation to introduce the person into the new community.

Since most wealth was based on land until the late medieval era it was actually be quite a bit more rare for a solitary member of the aristocracy to move without marriage or fighting skills being involved. It was very common for women to marry into foreign houses in the upper aristocracy while second and third sons that did not go into the church or work for the government in some official capacity would often travel to new areas looking for fame/fortune/spoils connected to war but just moving for the heck of it wasn't done as they would lack their land based wealth in the new region and not have much if any political support to maintain their rank.
 
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