Historisk Tidsskrift
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Bo Poulsen

The Relationship Between Town and Country in Medieval Denmark

(109:1, 19-20)

The present article examines certain aspects of the relationship between town and country in Denmark from around the year 1000 to the middle of the sixteenth century. It begins with a general survey of the Danish towns' demographical development. Before the year 1000 less than one percent of the population lived in towns, while the figure rose to perhaps four percent before 1200 and even to ten percent in the thirteenth century. There is every indication that even after the Black Death the towns not only sustained that percentage, but that the urban population increased in both absolute and relative figures. A study of the Schleswig Duchy, where solid sources in the form of tax rolls have survived, shows that about twelve to fourteen percent of the people lived in towns around the year 1500.

Following this is a study of how town dwellers conceived of themselves in relation to the rural populace. It would appear that originally no distinction was made between the two groups, and even in the thirteenth century there is no trace of derogatory terms for country folks, although by then the designations »country man« and »townsman« had arisen. In the Late Middle Ages, however, the more distinctly contrasting terms »peasant« and »burgher« came into usage, reflecting a heightened awareness of the new importance of the towns on the part of the inhabitants.

The existence of the towns provided the conditions not only for the rise of merchants, but also of professional craftsmen, who appear in the towns from around 1200. An examination of trade names found in all Danish sources from the period shows a marked increase in the number of crafts up through the Middle Ages. There is a dramatic increase particularly during the fourteenth

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and fifteenth centuries: the number of new trade names in the period from 1350 to 1450 was approximately three times greater than during the two preceding centuries. And while numerous crafts appeared in the towns, the number of craftsmen on the farms of the countryside dwindled dramatically. It became clear that both town councils and territorial lords wanted to limit the number of trades carried on in rural areas, and in general only the most basic crafts were permitted there.

As a consequence, craftsmen became a significant segment of the urban population. In the late Middle Ages towns of about five hundred taxpayers could boast of forty to fifty different crafts, and these also appeared in more organized forms. In 1268 we have the earliest evidence of a trade, namely bakers, being designated by the term officium, while the oldest documentation for cooperation between a town council and craft guilds is from 1349. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries we can see that craftsmen united on the basis of their trade, their officium. The term came to designate both the craft itself and the internal cooperation among the craftsmen within a particular corporation.

Both town and lord promoted the development of specialized urban crafts. A decree issued to the towns of Scania in 1328 stipulated that no craftsman in any town was to practice more than one trade, and in 1422 the Danish king, Erik of Pomerania, extended the prohibition to all urban craftsmen throughout the realm: to make a living the baker would have to bake and only bake, etc. The division of labour in the towns was natural only in part.

The new tradesmen who arose in the course of the Middle Ages attained a status far different from the peasants, namely that of professionalized burghers. Professional crafts also developed in the rural areas, but their number and degree of specialization remained modest due to the deliberate policy of town and king to create a sharp division between town and country.

Translated by Michael Wolfe