« …Nevertheless, as Archibald Lewis rightly points out, ‘the most important frontier in European expansion was the internal frontier of forest, marsh and heath’. The uninhabited wastes were reduced in size as the European peasants cleared the land; as people became more numerous, they harnessed the power of
wheel and windmill; communications were established between regions once completely foreign to each other; barriers came down; countless towns sprang up or revived wherever there was a crossroads of trade, and this was undoubtedly the crucial factor. Europe was suddenly covered with towns more than 3000 in Germany alone. Some of them, it is true, were little more than villages, despite their city walls, harbouring a mere two to three hundred souls. But many of them grew to become towns of a new and unprecedented kind. Classical antiquity had had its free cities, the Greek city-states; but these had been open to the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside, who were free to come and go as they pleased.
The west European medieval town was on the contrary a closed citadel behind its walls. ‘The wall separates the townsman from the peasant’, as a German proverb says. The town was a world of its own, protected by its privileges (‘the city air makes men free’), an aggressive world and an active force for unequal exchange. And it was the medieval city - a more or less active ferment depending on period and place which, like the yeast in some mighty dough, brought about the rise of Europe. Can the prominent role of the city be accounted for by its having been able to expand and develop in an already-structured rural world, rather than in a vacuum like the towns of the New World (and possibly the Greek city-states themselves)? In other words, it had material available to work on, at the expense of which it could grow. What was more, the territorial state, since it took so long to appear on the scene, offered no competition: this time, the hare easily and predictably outstripped the tortoise.
The town consolidated its future with its roads, its markets, its workshops and the money that accumulated within its walls. Its markets ensured its food supply, as peasants came to town with their daily produce: ‘The markets offered an outlet for the growing surpluses of the lordly domains, and for the huge amounts of produce resulting from the payment of dues in kind’. According to B.H. Slicher van Bath, after about 1150, Europe moved beyond ‘direct agricultural consumption’, i.e. self-sufficiency, to the stage of ‘indirect agricultural consumption’ created by the marketing of surplus rural production. At the same time, the town attracted all the skilled crafts, creating for itself a monopoly of the manufacture and marketing of industrial products. Only later would pre-industry move back into the countryside.
In short, ‘economic life… especially after the thirteenth century, began to take precedence over the [earlier] agrarian aspects of the towns’. Over a very wide area, the crucial move was made from a domestic to a market economy. In other words, the towns were beginning to tower above their rural surroundings and to look beyond their immediate horizons. This was a ‘great leap forward’, the first in the series that created European society and launched it on its successful career. There is only one event even remotely comparable to this: the creation by the first European settlers in America of the many transit-towns, linked to each other by the road and by the requirements of commerce, command and defence… »