A night out on medieval town

February 15, 2002

Jeremy Black wanders the streets of Britain's urban history - from the birth of towns to the rise of the hypermarket - and finds it an exhilarating trip.

"You have only to look around the world today and find that efforts are being made to govern countries without local authorities, and we want to avoid that by all means." This speech, from the 1946 conference of the Association of Municipal Corporations, sums up much of the attitude of this splendid collection, which is at once an excellent urban history of Britain and a history of Britain from the urban perspective. The success of the latter viewpoint should ensure that these volumes enjoy a readership that is far from limited to urban historians.

Collective volumes can be weak, with grandees reheating work that has long rolled cold from the anvil of scholarship and taking part, in an atmosphere of cloying deference, in debates that were crucial in their youth. None of this is true of these volumes. Instead, like another recent successful magisterial project, The Oxford History of the British Empire , we have contributions that are fresh as well as important, interesting as well as judicious, thoughtful as well as scholarly. The volumes bulge with knowledge, and include plentiful (and pertinent) illustrations, maps, figures and tables. There has clearly been careful editing by the volume editors and by the general editor, Peter Clark. Each volume includes a consolidated bibliography and a thorough index, while the level of supporting material in the footnotes is impressive.

The volumes can be read in order, from cover to cover. It is also possible to follow through topics such as religion, economy or governance and to consider how they developed. Understandably, there is no equivalence in topics between the volumes. Thus, the impressive regional surveys in the first two volumes are not matched in the third, a choice that reflects a real shift and, yet, leads to an underplaying of important regional differences. Possibly related to this is another contrast between the detailed sense of place (and not only of topography) found in volume one and, to a certain extent, in volume two, and its underplaying in volume three where a sense of place gives way to a place for discourse.

Before turning to some of the volumes' strengths, a few doubts can be raised. First, this is not an urban history of Britain, but a history of that topic from 600 to 1950. The reasons are explained. David Palliser notes that "the 7th century... was when permanent town life, on our definition, began in southern Britain", while Martin Daunton considers the argument that after 1950 "an urban history of Britain is no longer feasible, and the urban variable lost any explanatory force it might once have possessed". How-ever, both editors, Palliser in his chapter on the origins of British towns and Daunton in an epilogue, show how much can be gained by looking beyond these barriers. It is to be regretted that there is not more on Iron Age and Roman settlements, while the material already in the public domain on urban his-tory over the past half-century is enormous, and it is reasonable that an urban history of Britain includes lengthy discussions of topics such as the impact of supermarkets and hypermarkets or the sale of council houses. Although these were not restricted to urban areas, they helped to reshape them. In his searching chapter in volume three on the evolution of Britain's urban built environment, Peter Scott looks beyond 1950 to include the reasons for the property boom of the 1950s and early 1960s, and its unwelcome consequences.

So far as boundaries are concerned, 1540 is an appropriate choice, but 1840 is a less secure one as it cuts across a major period of urbanisation and economic transformation without offering a politico-cultural boundary comparable to the Reformation. Discussion of the mid 19th-century urban hierarchy in volume two, with developments for example in Birkenhead and Middlesbrough, are a somewhat surprising accompaniment to consideration of the impact of Tudor ecclesiastical policies.

Second, it is disappointing how few contributors pay much attention to developments abroad, a drawback highlighted by the insights offered by those who do, for example, Francois-Joseph Ruggiu's Les Elites et les Villes Moyennes en France et en Angleterre aux XVIIe et XVIIIe Siècles (1997). Third, only some authors, such as John Langton, who is a geographer, are open to the approaches offered by geographical scholarship.

Yet, alongside this must be recorded the sheer exhilaration of reading so much first-rate scholarship. This is enhanced by the editorial decision to encourage a diversity in interpretation that itself leads to part of the interest of the volumes. This diversity also sets up important internal debates, although most have to be teased out by the reader. Thus Clark, the general editor, has a more critical view of the extent of urban life in 1540 than the contributors to the previous volume, who argue that Britain was more urbanised in the period than has commonly been thought. In his first-rate piece on "Politics and government 1540-1700", Ian Archer offers a more critical view of growing government power and a trend towards oligarchy than some other contributors to volume two. He stresses the limits of oligarchy and argues that in England and Scotland "the limited resources of early modern governments meant that the consolidation of power worked through the coopting of local elites rather than their displacement". Possibly this emphasis on the governmental search for support can also be applied to the 20th century, not least in the attempt to find "community leaders". Archer's careful scholarship and judicious reflection is matched in most of the pieces, for example when Alan Dyer suggests that it is "unwise to disparage modest but consistent success as 'urban failure' because it does not keep pace with the growth of industrialising settlements elsewhere".

The theme of government and towns is successfully carried forward by Joanna Innes and John Davis. Davis, who provides the quote from Margaret Thatcher's father, Alderman Roberts, that begins this review, offers the long-term perspective on the Thatcher years that several other contributors lack in their froth of righteous indignation. He points out that "detailed intrusiveness" and a lack of tolerance of what was judged "local underperformance" were long-standing. In volume two, Paul Slack argues that political "intrusions" in the 1640s to 1680s did serious damage to civic institutions and corporate self-confidence, and that social and economic change had had similar effects.

The variety of volume three extends to John Walton on consumerism, a theme ably worked in all three volumes; Bill Luckin on pollution, a thoughtful piece that covers under-investment and the conceptualisation of problems, as well as making the important point that "cliometric counterfactualism is no substitute for fully contextualised accounts of the environmental histories of individual towns and cities"; Douglas Reid on leisure and religion, including the suggestion that cinema, sport and pubs fulfilled key religious functions; and Caroline Arscott on the representation of the city in the visual arts, an all-too-brief account that shows a broad shift from expansive optimism to introspective melancholy.

The volume includes more predictable subjects, ably handled, for example migration (David Feldman) - "mobility cohered into a problem of migration as it was interpreted through some of the predominant social and political concerns of the moment, and as it was seen to contribute to them"; transport (John Armstrong) - a piece that notes the liberating as well as the dangerous consequences of the car; and social services (Marguerite Dupree) - including the diversity that resulted from the roles of voluntarism and local government. Discussing planning, Abigail Beach and Nick Tiratsoo argue that it was hampered by the difficult circumstances in which it was introduced.

In an analysis of industrialisation, David Reeder and Richard Rodger find towns and cities "the information superhighways of the 19th century", a claim also made in less bold terms for their period by contributors to volume two. Assessing urban labour markets, David Gilbert and Humphrey Southall suggest that the interactions between domestic service and other labour markets were important in shaping urban geography.

Simon Szreter and Anne Hardy show how the fertility characteristics of cities could be affected by "cultural or 'ethnic' influence", for example a large Irish Catholic presence. Richard Trainor's chapter on the middle class underscores the diversity of urban elites and auxiliary roles. There are also chapters on urban networks, London, ports, small towns, urban government, the political economy of urban utilities, urban society, land and property, and "Patterns on the ground: urban form, residential structure and the social construction of space" - a thoughtful piece by Colin Pooley that makes good use of research on the development of corporation housing in Liverpool in order to probe links between residential spatial structure and social and cultural identity. Pooley also goes beyond 1950.

In the space available here, it is not possible to offer similar treatment of the other two volumes, and I therefore concentrate on volume one as I suspect that of the three eras it will receive the least attention from specialists in other periods. This would be a pity as there is much in the volume that is of interest to them. The contributors show that there are marked discontinuities within the period that is, as Palliser points out, imperfectly designated by the single term medieval; just as a longer period cannot be adequately designated as pre-industrial. The volume divides at about 1300 in response to the major changes in British social and economic life then. This makes for a better division than the Norman conquest of England.

The role of what John Blair terms "layers of social and topographical patterning" on the urban landscape emerges clearly. We move from foci for urbanisation to the econ-omy and society of long-established settlements, with all the problems for cohesion and governance that this entailed in periods of flux, although Jennifer Kermode points out that whether or not urban society "was inherently unstable is a matter for debate". This is a typical feature of this volume: an openness to different interpretations and debate that in part reflects the role of archaeology as a source for information. Thus, a fine chapter by Julia Barrow on churches, education and literacy in towns from 600 to 1300 ends with a judicious note of caution: "By the late 12th century, towns had clearly established themselves as the centres of education and literacy, and were providing an audience capable of appreciating origin, myths and religious symbolism. Major churches in towns seem to have been the main factor in this development - mostly not deliberately, but coincidentally, through the employment they gave to freelance scribes and through their establishment of schools, intended in the first instance to produce revenue for themselves." Taking this theme forward, Gervase Rosser benefits from the greater range of sources to delineate "the cultural medium of the late medieval town", a piece that, like much else in this volume, will be required reading among many who would not see themselves as urban historians.

A more conventional account is provided by John Schofield and Geoffrey Stell, whose study of the built environment from 1300 to 1500 reveals that after 1400, houses of stone were rare, except in towns near good quarries and that it is vital not to exaggerate decline after the Black Death. Small towns, an important topic in understanding the urban sector, are covered well in the first and second volumes. Christopher Dyer reminds us forcefully of the methodological problems of the subject: "Definitions cannot be applied easily because of the incomplete nature of the evidence... Archaeological research throws some light on size of towns, and the activities that went on within them, but excavation has been concentrated on large towns. Small towns can therefore be identified and counted only with considerable difficulty." Similar caution is ably brought forward in volume two when deciding how best to define towns. Thus, in a fascinating chapter on health and leisure resorts, Peter Borsay draws attention to a number of criteria. Population figures could omit the influx of visitors, while resorts might remain village-like in size and political structure, but display urban characteristics, especially in their social life and culture.

At the opposite extreme in volume one, chapters by Derek Keene and Caroline Barron chart and explain London's rise to a dominant position in England's economy and culture. In volume two, Jeremy Boulton and Leonard Schwarz consider its early-modern heyday; although with insufficient attention to the role of London as cultural and intellectual forge and fulcrum. This growing commercial hegemony is also registered, but profitably from a different angle, in volume one in Richard Britnell's two chapters on the urban economy, which go a long way towards providing an economic history of the period. Assessing "Government, power and authority 1300-1540", S. H. Rigby and Elizabeth Ewan ask questions about the triumph of oligarchy that take us forward into volume two where ecclesiastical change, political pressures and economic developments are clearly recorded in urban politics, practices and mores. However, the range of problems presented by the rapid urbanisation considered in volume three pressed harder on the urban environment.

In each period, problems raised questions about the ability of institutions to devise, elicit support for and execute relevant policies, as well as the nature of urban society. As is ably shown, problems did not exist in a void, but were defined and debated in accordance with contested interpretations of society. Far from being situated only in an urban context, these interpretations were wider ranging, and thus, at one level, urban history registers more general developments, opportunities and anxieties. Much of the value of this superb collection rests in its ability to register this wider history. Urban history and these volumes will be done a disservice if they are classified in a misleadingly narrow fashion.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

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