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8-08-2015, 14:27

The Rise of the Merchant Class

Although Europe remained largely rural during the Middle Ages, people gradually moved from the agricultural estates to towns where they became merchants and artisans. While some cities had survived in a reduced state since the days of urbanized Rome, others grew up or were founded at strategic crossroads, at fords in rivers, or around a village market, often beside protective castle walls. Rogier painted just such a large prosperous city as a background to St. George and the Dragon (see Figure 1). City people, the burghers (burh or burg was a Germanic word for city), for all their entrepreneurial skills, held their fortunes in goods and money, that is, moveable property, not land, and so they remained outside the traditional social and economic (feudal-manorial) system. As trade and commerce revived and an economy based on money emerged, their power and social standing grew. Kings who recognized the importance of money as a means to hire their own soldiers and free themselves from overly powerful vassals began to ally themselves with the burghers. They established new towns where they granted special privileges and collected taxes. Nevertheless, the medieval social order continued to place the clergy in the highest rank, followed by the landed nobility, and at the bottom everyone else, whether they were wealthy merchants and artisans in the towns or farmers on the land. In this complex and shifting but highly stratified society, material symbols— especially a crowd of liveried retainers performing their duties in an imposing castle—became a very important way for a noble to show his importance. Livery (distinctive dress) identified the members of a noble household by means of the design of garments, the colors of cloth, the embroidered symbols, and even metal badges (Document 66). Meanwhile the castle building itself provided a setting for the rituals of daily life. The castle stood as an outward sign of aristocratic authority, wealth, power, and privilege. Ultimately the height of castle walls and towers became as important for their symbolic value as for their defensive capability. The castle as an architectural form changed to reflect and accommodate changing needs, functions, and expectations. When explosives came into use in the fourteenth century, making walls easy targets, the massive towers of the twelfth century gave way to the complex and decorative turrets we see in Rogier’s painting of St. George.