Small Town Society in Medieval England

The archaeology of medieval small towns has been neglected when compared with that of larger towns. Two reviews, by Grenville Astill and Christopher Dyer, have, however, demonstrated that there is great potential in exploring the archaeology of these settlements.

My research has used three counties; Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire, as case studies to understand small town life in medieval England. The project makes extensive use of work undertaken in the last 2 decades in relation to development management, much of which is unpublished ‘grey literature’.

The research has led to publications in the journals Urban History, The Cambridge Archaeological Journal and The Archaeological Journal.

The research has several strands:

Urban Origins: The wave of urbanisation which occured in the 12th-13th centuries saw existing places ‘upgraded’ to towns and the foundation of new boroughs on virgin sites. The foundation of these towns is typically seen in purely economic terms, with debates exploring whether these towns were integral or antagonistic to the feudal order. Archaeology has only had a limited role, principally focusing on the topographical changes associated with urbanisation and seeking to research what was there before a town was founded. My research seeks to explore the reasons that towns were founded in more depth, by focussing on the relationships between towns and their hinterlands and by understanding the varying internal dynamics of medieval towns.

Towns in Transition: At the other end of the chronological scale, I am interested in the changes which took place in towns from the later 14th century. Traditionally seen in terms of ‘decline’ and ‘decay’, new approaches focus instead on narratives of re-organisation and adaptation. My work is therefore seeking to understand why some towns appear more resilient than others, whether certain elements of urban life persisted for longer than others and whether we should be seeking evidence of decline, or simply a change in the function and character of urban life at the end of the middle ages. As part of this strand I have been examining the changing fortunes of port towns in medieval Sussex and will be undertaking fieldwork at the deserted medieval town of Newtown, Hampshire in June 2015.

Assemblage Approaches to Urban Archaeology: My research seeks to use archaeological theory to build new perspectives on urban life in the medieval period. This stems from my adoption of Actor-Network Theory in my PhD research on medieval Southampton, but has now branched out to exploring the value of a range of sociological and philosophical work, including the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, Jane Bennett and geographers who have adopted similar processes. Key to these approaches is seeing towns as unstable entities, as performances of everyday life between human and non-human participants. As such, I am seeking to explore towns as processes and performances, rather than as stable places.

The research is funded by an early career grant from Cardiff University.

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