How urban was medieval England?

(Christopher Dyer)

Medieval England is usually described as overwhelmingly rural. The vast majority of the population - nine-tenths or an even higher proportion - are said to have lived off the land as peasants or rural labourers, and those with power and influence, both lay lords and churchmen, drew their wealth from the broad acres of their country estates. This rural picture is imprinted in our minds by literary images like Piers Plowman sowing his half acre, and Robin Hood roaming in the greenwood. But these characters were part of a medieval rural myth.

Many medieval people, whose lives were pressured and complex, imagined that simple values and honest common sense were to be found in the countryside. Piers Plowman's creator, William Langland, lived in London, and his works were read by merchants; the Robin Hood play was acted annually by townspeople in fifteenth-century Exeter and Reading. Historians' low estimation of towns forms part of an old view of the Middle Ages which emphasises the under-development of the economy, in which irrational and otherworldly preoccupations, combined with short-sighted selfishness, were thought to have prevented technical progress, and inevitably condemned a large section of society to long-term poverty.

What was a town in the Middle Ages? Towns are now seen by historians in practical terms as settlements containing a concentration of population where many occupations were followed, most of which did not involve direct agricultural production. They tended to have higher populations than the surrounding villages, but did not need to be very large - they might contain fewer than 300 people. Archaeologists and geographers have never fully accepted this definition. They give more attention to towns as `central places', which served as the focal points of their region by performing a
number of specialised functions - they were centres of administration, religion and culture as well as trade. They also identify the arrangement of market places, public buildings, streets and house plots, by which a king or lord or town government created a distinctive urban space. Archaeologists are impressed by the institutions found in towns, which have left walls, castles,
religious buildings and other material trappings of power embedded in the urban fabric. They come nearer to historical ideas when they emphasise as characteristic of urban sites the deep deposits of occupational debris generated by intense human activity.

Medieval observers would know that a place was a town by the variety of its people who could provide a wide range of goods and services unobtainable in any village; visitors would be drawn by the opportunity to buy and sell, and by court sessions or religious ceremonies. When they entered the town they would observe its distinctive form and atmosphere, with planned streets, high
buildings, noise and bustle of the numerous inhabitants and travellers, and odour compounded from smoke, dung, refuse and industrial processes such as tanning.

Constitutional historians set great store by identifying boroughs. These were places in which plots of land were held by burgage tenure, that is freely, for a fixed money rent, and which the tenants could sell, divide or mortgage as they pleased. These privileges were supposed to provide the right framework in which trade could flourish. A few dozen major towns and cities were able to govern themselves, with mayors and councils levying taxes and regulating
markets in the interests of the leading inhabitants. Now the effect of adopting a new social and economic definition of towns has been to force us to revise our estimate of the number of places which can be called urban.

For example, medieval Birmingham was once said to have been no more than a village because it had not been granted the status of a borough by charter. Yet by about 1300 Birmingham had a thousand inhabitants and in the following 250 years we know that they made cloth, worked iron, kept inns, tanned leather, traded in fish, spices, cattle and wool - in short followed dozens of occupations which freed them from dependence on agriculture. They lived in nine densely built-up streets focused on the parish church and the market place, near a river crossing. Although no borough charter was ever
issued, the lords of the manor, the successive members of the de Birmingham family, granted the tenants the right to hold by burgage tenure, so they received borough privileges informally. All over the country places which were not boroughs were still able to develop as local centres of trade and manufacture, including towns familiar to us because they still function as local centres for shopping and have other claims to fame - Newmarket, Rugby and Eastbourne, for example.

Soon after 1300 there were near to 700 English towns, most of them small. Birmingham with its population of a thousand seems quite substantial in comparison with Hindon in Wiltshire, which may have had no more than 200 inhabitants in the late fourteenth century. But cumulatively 600 or more small towns accounted for hundreds of thousands of people.

Recent research tends to push up the estimated size of places like Norwich, Winchester and London. In the capital's main shopping street, Cheapside, houses were divided into the equivalent of flats, creating a high density of population which has suggested that the previous estimate for the late thirteenth century of about 50,000 inhabitants was too low, and that a more accurate figure would be 80,000-100,000. Our calculations are often based on tax lists, and whenever there are alternative sources the number of payers turns out to be understated; townspeople were especially adept at tax evasion. All this statistical revisionism means that it can now be estimated that in c. 1300, and for the following two centuries, near to one in
five English people lived in towns, which is, of course, a considerably higher figure than has commonly been supposed.

England looks a more urban country in the Middle Ages in the light of the long-term development of its towns, many of which were already very old by 1300. Thanks to the excavations associated with the recent redevelopment schemes we have a much clearer idea of the chronology of town growth. We cannot trace them back continuously to the Roman period as urban communities, since Roman cities seem to have shrunk by the years 450 or 550, not into total desertion, but down to relatively small, though still important, centres of government. Kings and churchmen, still influenced by the Roman tradition, thought that former cities were fitting places in which to
locate palaces and cathedrals. But in the decades around 700 at lpswich, London (then called Lundenwic), Southampton (Hamwic) and York (Eoforwic) traders and craftsmen lived in large concentrated settlements near landing places on major rivers that gave them commercial access to the Continent.

This first phase of urbanisation, the age of the wics (meaning trading places), lasted for perhaps two centuries, and around 900 a new generation of towns grew up, many of them within the fortifications built by the English kings and the Danes in the course of their struggle for control of the country. These towns were more widely spread, more varied in character and collectively more populous than the wics. Excavations reveal closely-packed buildings
(some of distinctive types, with cellars, designed for commercial use) with abundant evidence of traded goods and craft activities. By 1086 when Domesday made a rather inconsistent survey of towns along with the rest of the country's resources, there were about 112, and probably almost a tenth of the population lived in them. Places like Canterbury, Winchester and Norwich, were already large and wealthy.

In the third period of urban growth, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (especially after 1180) hundreds of new towns were founded, which mostly became modest market towns but which included some notable successes such as Newcastle-on-Tyne and Hull. The combination of the new foundations and the growth of the older centres accounted for a fivefold rise in the whole urban population between 1086 and 1300, a faster rate of growth than in the villages, culminating in a total of about a million town dwellers by 1300.

The towns in the late Middle Ages were therefore the product of at least three successive phases of urbanisation. Even in the tenth and eleventh centuries an urban hierarchy can be identified, but by 1300 this had achieved maturity. At the top stood London, a city comparable in its size and trade contacts with Bruges, Paris and Milan. In the next rank were the provincial capitals of Bristol, York and Norwich (later joined by Coventry) followed by the thirty or so larger towns such as Exeter, Winchester and Shrewsbury, and then the hundreds of market towns. The successive tiers of towns can be
distinguished partly by their size but also by their social structure - the larger the town, the more people who were either very rich or very poor. In addition, the types of town can be identified by the variety of their trades and crafts, the value of the commodities that they handled, the breadth of their trading horizons and the extent to which they served as centres of government and religion.

How does the relatively large size and long ancestry of the urban sector affect our view of medieval society? Caution is needed in equating towns and capitalism. We must abandon the idea that towns and landed aristocrats were locked in combat as natural enemies and that the `rise of the middle class' undermined the landed nobility. The new chronology of urban growth means that towns developed at the same time that the manor was being formed and the landed aristocracy were establishing their power and wealth. Towns did not expand as feudalism declined. When lordly authority was being questioned and their manors became less effective in the period 1350-1500, some towns were in decay, and the urban sector as a whole was probably maintaining its size and importance.

Lords, far from fearing the towns, encouraged them, founded them and invested in them, expecting to gain profits from urban rents. A baronial family in Cumberland, for example, fostered the town of Cockermouth, granting it formal privileges in 1210. By the late thirteenth century there were at least 200 households containing about a thousand inhabitants. Their rents were low, and totalled only 3[pounds] per annum, but the lord profited annually by 25[pounds] from the mills used by the townspeople.

Lords also valued the towns as outlets for the produce of their own estates, and because their peasant tenants would be able to use the markets and pay rents in cash. As consumers they expected to buy imported luxuries and high quality manufactures from the merchants. In London, but also in the larger provincial towns, the aristocracy kept houses where they could stay on their visits to attend courts or Parliament, and buy and store goods. They thought of large towns as prestigious places, where power was centred and people of substance gathered.

Peasants sometimes expressed distrust of the privileges and cunning of town dwellers, but they were glad to sell grain and animals, and indeed to buy cloth and implements, and a constant flow of migrants from the countryside helped to maintain and increase the urban population. Many peasants would know relatives or neighbours who had moved into towns. Migrants kept in touch with their native villages, like the families of London pewterers who maintained contact with the Bedfordshire village of Arlesey.

The townspeople looked up to the aristocracy and shared their culture - Londoners enjoyed tournaments, for example, and read romances about chivalric deeds.

The outlook of the urban elite was dominated by ideas of privilege, and the need for power to be exercised by the responsible and wealthy minority. They defended their interests against lords who were too restrictive, but had no principled hostility towards the landed aristocracy.

Rebellions and agitations within towns did not aim to overthrow the system, but instead sought to gain for underprivileged groups, not just artisans but also merchants who had been excluded from office, a share in power and the removal of corruption. An apparently revolutionary episode at the Yorkshire town of Beverley coincided with the great revolt of 1381. Riotous crowds including many cloth workers rose up against the twelve keepers (most of them rich merchants) who ran the town. The oligarchy of twelve `great and most sufficient' keepers was replaced by a council of twenty-four, which may have represented a wider section of the population, but the draper at their head was no poor craftsman, and the new government appears to resemble another oligarchy.

It is said that towns generated innovations - ideas flowed from the towns into the sleepy countryside. Schools were often sited in towns, and a high proportion of the inhabitants achieved some degree of literacy - a half could read English on the eve of the Reformation according to one observer. The friars were located in towns, and their sermons, aimed at an intelligent audience, were mainly preached to urban congregations. Styles of architecture which began in towns spread to the country, like `perpendicular' which is thought to have developed at Gloucester.

But inventions like the windmill seem to have had a rural origin in the late twelfth century. Those with most power and influence, lay aristocrats and leading churchmen, moved between town and country, and the main source of practical inventions, the artisans, were either itinerant (like building workers) or as likely to be living in villages as in towns. In short we should not equate towns with modernity - medieval society created its own type of town, and merchants, artisans, landlords and peasants rubbed along together with no great gulf separating town and country.

After these notes of caution about regarding towns as the vanguard of modern times, their special qualities and influence can still be appreciated. The high densities and multiplicity of occupations gave town life a peculiar intensity. The larger towns contained a wide range of social groups, from wealthy merchants trading in valuable cargoes over long distances, through the petty traders and artisans, to the wage earners, labourers and servants, down to the beggars and criminals in the streets. They all lived in close proximity, as the built-up area rarely exceeded a square mile, and the rich lived in the city centre. Occupations varied, with at least twenty distinct crafts and trades in small towns, and fifty to a hundred in the large centres. Individuals commonly became involved in a number of activities - a York mason, for example, dealt in grain.

Every town had at least one representative of the basic trades such as tailor, smith, carpenter, shoemaker, weaver; the most numerous were those involved in the supply of food and drink: brewers, bakers and butchers. Only the large centres would have more specialised crafts, such as bell-founders and organ makers. Clergy of every type and rank lived in large towns, and even small places provided a living for a group of chaplains and clerks. Social variety made for a lively atmosphere. There could be frictions, and disputes which led to violence. Viewed in a more positive light urban life was full of
convivial gatherings and festive occasions.

Towns provided opportunities for mobility. Immigrants from the country and other towns formed a high proportion of the population, and sizeable numbers of people from the Continent or Wales, Scotland and Ireland were concentrated in towns. Migrants expected advancement, and we can trace individuals enriching themselves by moving first to a small town, and then to a provincial centre or London. Contemporaries believed in the rags-to-riches myth, though on closer examination we can see that talent and good fortune was helped a great deal by capital or influence. Richard Whittington, for
example, who really did become mayor of London in the early fifteenth century, arrived not as a penniless country boy but as the son of a well-heeled gentry family.

Women are often identified as a disadvantaged section of society who gained more independence in towns. Like peasant wives, they contributed to the household economy, but townswomen were sometimes involved in a trade different from that of their husbands. As widows, they commonly carried on their own business, sometimes for many years. The rewards of work and the chances of employment for women expanded after the Black Death and the consequent labour shortage. Towns gave opportunities for women, but many obstacles were placed in their paths, and they were always excluded from public office.

Everywhere in the Middle Ages we find associations of people with shared interests called `communities', but these groupings were especially characteristic of towns. Official documents described the whole town as a community, and often its leading members formed an association of traders, the guild merchant. The elite encouraged ceremonies like the Coventry mystery plays which made the city famous, and encouraged a sense of unity and civic pride among those who contributed. Townspeople came together in fraternities, which gave their members mutual support, companionship and sociability. Fraternities combined religious, social and political activities; politics came to the fore in the case of the towns which were still ruled by lords' officials, where the fraternity provided a focus for an alternative government. At Henley-on-Thames by the fourteenth century the fraternity financed and maintained the bridge and the parish church, supervised law and order, collected taxes, issued bye-laws and managed a large portfolio of property in the town, while the absentee lord just collected his rents and looked on.

Urban life, judging from excavations and the study of standing buildings, produced a distinctive physical environment under intense pressure. The planners created public spaces in the streets and market places, which were constantly encroached by the occupiers of market stalls and shops who wished to turn temporary structures into permanent buildings. The private space of the burgage plots was commonly filled with houses, barns and workshops. When building room and street frontages were in short supply houses were built with their gables facing on to the street, and smaller houses (some with a floor area of 15 by 15 feet) were linked in terraces. Buildings rose to two, three and more storeys, with jetties which allowed the upper floors to overhang, and so increase the total floor area.

The many trades and crafts, and indeed the simple presence of a crush of people, generated a great quantity of waste. Excavations on water-logged sites, like Kings Lynn, where the organic materials are preserved, reveal a mass of objects of wood, leather, textile and remains of vegetation used as food, fodder and building materials, as well as the bone, metal, pottery, glass and stone objects encountered on all urban sites. Rubbish was dumped in pits or middens at the backs of the houses, but increasingly the town authorities attempted to control the problem in the interests of hygiene, and in ports such as Newcastle on Tyne refuse was put to good use as `land fill' at the water front.

Towns influenced the whole of medieval society not primarily through their cosmopolitan population, enterprise culture, political self-help and densely occupied environment, but more through their role as commercial centres. The landed aristocracy for most of the thirteenth and fourteenth century responded to the opportunity to sell grain, wool, cheese and animals by managing their estates to yield surpluses. They put trained officials, often clergy and minor gentry, in charge of their manors to audit accounts and maximise profits. These two centuries of direct experience of the market, and the need to make decisions about investment, cash flow, labour recruitment, and the choice of the most profitable crops had profound effects on the outlook of the English aristocracy.

The expanding market had an even greater impact on the peasants. A close network of small towns grew in the thirteenth century which provided every peasant with a nearby urban market, and often a choice of two or three. Tenants with 12 acres of land or more - a substantial minority of the rural population - were able to sell sacks of grain, surplus animals, wool, and dairy and garden produce. They bought in the towns inexpensive cloth, shoes, horseshoes and harness buckles, joints of meat and dried fish.

By 1300 peasants were no longer `self-sufficient', not just in the sense that they needed to sen produce to pay rents and taxes, but also they did not grow or make all of the goods that they consumed. The use of money penetrated deeply into the village. The smallholders earned wages in cash, and bought most of their food. All levels of society were involved in the land market, in which they paid money both to the lord to enter a new holding, and also a purchase price to the previous tenant, the cash often being obtained as loans.

Cart-loads of grain, hay and other produce (more often from the thirteenth century drawn by horses) went to market driven either by peasants trading on their own account, or by the employees and tenants of the lords. Peasant women would walk with baskets of fruit or eggs to hawk through the town streets. But the town traders would often travel round the villages - cornmongers bought up grain, and bakers sold bread. Chains of middlemen developed, like the Buckinghamshire maltman who bought small parcels of peasant barley, processed it, and then passed it in bulk to London brewers. Commerce was by no means tied to towns, and bargains could be struck by
negotiations in the field or in a country inn. Industries, especially cloth-making from the mid-fourteenth century, were located in the country, but raw materials such as dyestuffs were imported by town merchants. Finished products were exported through London or major ports, and the spinning, weaving and fulling by country artisans was coordinated by clothiers based in small towns such as Lavenham in Suffolk or Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire.

Trade from the towns had widespread effects on the country economy from an early date. Peasants bought pots made in Thetford and Stamford in the tenth century, fragments of which are found on rural settlements over eastern England, and peasants are the most likely suppliers of the large variety of plants used in crafts, and as fodder, litter and fuel which have been found preserved in the wet soils of early urban sites like York. Commerce expanded most rapidly in the thirteenth century, when markets and towns multiplied, and ingrained among villagers habits of buying, selling and borrowing, which persisted through the recessions of the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries.

The gloomy and patronising view of the Middle Ages that recently prevailed will no longer work. Famines caused hardship and increased mortality in the half century after 1290, but that should not lead us to regard all medieval agriculture as ineffective. If the urban sector was as large as a fifth of the population, then the farming system was able in most years to produce enough for the needs both of the peasants and their dependents, and of thousands of urban households (perhaps as many as 200,000 in c. 1300) who did not grow much of their own food. Towns stimulated production in the country, by making specialisation more worthwhile, by providing incentives for
hard work and so raising productivity. The commercial opportunities of the thirteenth century, by creating jobs, may even have provided the `feel-good factor' which encouraged young people to marry and raise families, even when they had no more than a cottage and patch of land to cultivate. Whereas we used to believe that increasing numbers of people provided the dynamic force in the Middle Ages, precipitating the crisis of the fourteenth century, population growth looks increasingly like a consequence, rather than a cause, of economic change.

If these new ideas about the importance of medieval English towns are right, England does not seem quite so underdeveloped in comparison with the Continent as was once believed - the relationship has been compared with that of a colony dependent on the more sophisticated economies of northern Italy and Flanders. These regions were highly urbanised, but England's network of towns were not so different from other parts of northern Europe. The transition into the modern world after 1500 may not have been such an upheaval, as the growth in trade and manufacture was occurring on a well-established base. The `new' Midlle Ages appears less quaint, backward and alien than the old version.