Thinking About Medieval Urban ‘Decline’

For the past couple of years I have been working on a small project assessing the archaeological evidence for so-called urban decline in later medieval England (principally the later 14th and 15th centuries). I came to this question as it is something commonly regurgitated in site reports when no later medieval evidence is present – but what does this lack of evidence actually mean? Indeed, what does urban decline even mean?

My reason for writing this post is that today saw the publication of the second research paper from this project in The Archaeological Journal (the first was published in Urban History at the end of last year and I have a 3rd in prep). In this article I summarise the later medieval evidence from excavations in small towns in Sussex, Hampshire and Surrey and argue for a shift from thinking about urban ‘decay’ or ‘decline’, inherently negative terms, to talking about how towns transformed in response to the economic  demographic crises of the later middle ages.

The language that we use comes from studies of urban history and, specifically, the economic history of towns. It is derived from analyses of population and tax records, but in recent years scholars such as Chris Dyer have argued for a shift towards thinking about how the urban hierarchy was re-ordered. I wanted to address the issue from a different perspective and one which, I think, is particularly well suited to archaeology. That is to explore what it is that gives a place urban character and what elements of character persist. I argue, for example, that just because there are more open spaces in towns it does not mean that places declined in urban character, rather that urban communities adjusted to smaller populations, changes in food supply and economic structure and took advantage of opportunities to expand certain non-domestic activities into other areas of the town. Keith Lilley has argued something similar in thinking about how towns were re-planned after the Black Death.

I’ve tried to explore the archaeological evidence within its economic context, identifying how towns associated with wool producing areas were particularly prosperous, for example. But, in the Urban History paper in particular, I have also sought to apply new archaeological approaches, particularly assemblage theory, to these questions, to ask what persisted and why, and what the implications of this are. This is an approach that I have also used to explore town foundation and finds parallels on recent work on urbanism by Axel Christopherson. I hope that this work will force others to look critically at later medieval urbanism, to not simply apply an oversimplified idea of urban decline, but to think about the processes which formed the archaeological record and to think through their implications for experiences of urban life in later medieval England.

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