Introduction to the history of medieval boroughs


Problems of definition |  Continuity or creation? |  Wiks, burhs, and ports
Planned/planted towns |  Growth of self-government |  Urban economy |  Urban society
SOURCES OF OUR KNOWLEDGE |  further reading

Sources of our knowledge about medieval towns

written documents |  art and literature |  cartography, topography, and toponymy |  material culture

Northampton charter Page from London's Liber Albus

Royal charters and local custumals were the foundations of borough self-government.

Depiction of Canterbury Depiction of a building project

The illustration at left, from a manuscript copy of a work by John Lydgate, portrays Canterbury.
That at right, from a Book of Hours produced in 1423 for the Duke of Bedford, depicts house construction.

sketch map of Lynn, 1581 Street signs from London, York and Norwich; photo © S. Alsford

Post-medieval maps and modern road signs can, if used cautiously, supply evidence about medieval towns. The representation of Lynn (at left) is extracted from a copy of a map (1581, original lost) of the Honour and Chase of Rising [see Harrod, Report on the deeds and records of the Borough of King's Lynn, pp.133-34] ; the view involves slight distortion, as the cartographer aimed to make the the steeples of St. Margaret's and St. Nicholas line up with another point (not seen in the extract), as boundary markers.

Bowes Morrell house; photo © S. Alsford spoon and carrying case; photo © S. Alsford

(above, left) One of the medieval buildings still standing in York.
(above, right) A travelling spoon and case of the fifteenth century; collection of the British Museum. Travellers would often carry their own spoon and knife, as hosts did not mormally provide them; it unscrews into three parts to fit into the custom leather case.
(below) Experimental archaeology's replication and testing of historical weapons such as the longbow (of which only one medieval example survived until our time) has enhanced our understanding of the range, accuracy and penetration of an arrow fired from such a bow, how a force of archers could be a medieval 'weapon of mass destruction' and how regular practice with the longbow altered male physique.

archer-re-enactors, 2008; 
photo © S. Alsford


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Created: January 2, 2013. Last update: June 19, 2021 © Stephen Alsford, 2013-2021