Serfs Buy Their Way to Freedom: When faced with the need for quick cash, and to avoid losing their land, nobles once again offered their serfs a chance to buy their freedom, just as their fathers and uncles and grandfathers had done before them, when money was needed by the nobles to buy armor and weapons for the crusades.
This time, money was needed to pay loans and to buy more luxury goods. This time, because the serfs had sold goods at the growing local marketplaces, many were able to buy their way free of the land.
This was the beginning of the end of the feudal system. As the serfs left, the feudal system began to decline.
Not all the serfs left the manor, even those who could afford their freedom. Where could they go? Some serfs bought their freedom, but stayed on the land and worked for the nobles for payment.
Others, however, were eager to leave. If a crusade was being organized, they joined the army. Most new freemen moved to the rapidly growing towns in search of work.
Rise of Towns: The number of towns in Western Europe grew rapidly. Many sprang up along the sides of the road on the trading routes. War between barbarian tribes had declined, but there were many bandits. Townspeople built walls around the town to protect themselves.
Early Town Life: Inside the wall, there were narrow winding streets, and horse drawn carts piled high with goods to trade. Along each narrow street, there were little shops. Store owners lived above their shops. Shops were made of wood with thatched roofs. Fire was a constant worry.
In the beginning, people who lived in town were not that cramped. Towns were more of a grouping of traders, each with a permanent shops - traders that had banded together to protect themselves from outside attack. There were some inns to house travelers, and some stables to take care of the horses, and maybe a doctor or two. But towns were small.
As more and more people moved to the towns, the towns grew in size. Things were not as organized. Towns began to stink. There was no plumbing in the towns. Garbage and sewage was tossed into the street. The only people who cleaned up and burned the garbage were the shop owners in the area who needed to keep the streets somewhat passable so that people could come to their shops. Much of the garbage stayed in the streets until it rotted. People got sick all the time.
The living conditions were horrible. Unless you had a shop of your own, with customers that paid their bills, you either worked for someone in exchange for food and shelter, or you begged. In spite of the conditions, more and more people arrived in the towns, eager to escape their life as serfs on the manors.