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
|Origins: problems of definition|
Pinnning down an answer to the question of what is (or was, in the Middle Ages) a town remains an elusive goal. The origins and defining characteristics of medieval English boroughs have, for over two centuries, been hotly debated among historians. This is partly because the issue can be approached from different perspectives and with different criteria, none of which accommodate principles of inclusivity and exclusivity. The wide degree of diversity among England's towns, at all stages in their historical development, hinders the formation of a definitive, one-size-fits-all theory; for instance, boroughs and cities may be seen, technically, as representing sub-categories of towns, yet they tend to be those towns most heavily studied and most taken into account when defining the urban genre. Theory after theory has been devalued by pointing to particular cases which do not fit, or are even in opposition, and these cannot simply be dismissed as "exceptions proving the rule". It is also partly because efforts during the medieval period to categorize settlements as urban (e.g. burgus) or non-urban (e.g. vill) were themselves often imprecise, inconsistent, and consequently unreliable. The best we can do is suggest general indicators that contribute to a somewhat impressionistic picture of urban society, rather than definitive attributes that unimpeachably differentiate towns from other types of communal settlement.
The issues of origins and of attributes are closely related, for part of the debate has focused around whether towns evolved gradually or were each a specific act of creation; the question of what characterizes a town would thus help provide a guide to when towns appeared on the landscape. It should be borne in mind, however, that definition, classification and categorization are the preoccupations of scholars in the human sciences almost as much as in the physical sciences not those of the people inhabiting medieval towns; indeed, the inconsistency in medieval times of application of "borough" or related terms makes the historian's task that much harder.
Let us first begin with what may seem obvious, but should not be neglected: towns are gatherings of human beings. Many great writers and scholars have made statements along the lines of "what is a city but its people"; this is useful in preventing us from focusing exclusively on towns as a more-or-less permanent collections of architectural structures with some kind of planned organization based on function and/or topography. Human beings are social animals who for reasons such as mutual support (breeding, feeding, protection) and territoriality are inclined to form communities. However, those communities need not take the form of collective dwelling-places of fixed location, let alone of towns.
It is tempting to think of villages as smaller, less complex precursors of towns, and to think in terms of when one evolved into the other. There are two dangers here regarding medieval towns (and some would argue that the same applies to the earliest urbanization of the ancient world). One is that it is not a straightforward division. We should rather think in terms of a spectrum along which lie conventional markers such as hamlets, villages, market centres, towns, and cities; as a related aside, it should be noted that "town" is strictly an English usage, sometimes applied as a distinguisher from "city", whereas for most other parts of medieval Europe "city" alone is usually applied to urban settlements of varying sizes.
It is human nature to take a spectrum and, sometimes artificially, break it up into distinct categories; this is how we reduce the world to something we can understand. In doing so we look for distinguishing points between cities and towns, or between towns and boroughs. For instance, it has generally been held that in England it was the presence of a cathedral that accorded city status (although Domesday could use the term to apply to county towns that were not diocesan centres), while some argue that cities had a more diversified class structure (insofar as one can talk about "class" at all in the medieval period) and highly organized craft gilds that were a political force. While it is useful to try to make such distinctions, they are just organizing tools, and we should not imagine that every urban place can be neatly fitted into one category or other, any more than we should pursue too far the notion of a rigid separation of town and countryside.
The second danger is that we particularly in today's highly urbanized society, in which some of our key concepts (civilization, politics) derive from terms assuming urbanization tend to envisage a progression that has both hierarchical and chronological aspects. That is, regarding the former, that the categories are distinguished from each other by degree (e.g. size); a useful yardstick to an extent, yet, as just one example of the difficulty here, some medieval towns were no larger than large villages although neither by modern, nor by medieval continental, standards were any English cities besides London very large. Regarding a chronological progression, we might think that towns are likely to have grown out of villages. While this did happen in some cases, it is more helpful to think of both towns and villages as integral parts of a wider pattern of settlement and utilization of the land, emerging from a common environment shaped by economic and political forces.
Having acknowledged this, however, to understand the urban phenomenon of the Middle Ages we still need to risk over-generalization and the artificiality of classification by exploring some of the key attributes that might be considered "defining" of the medieval English town. Historians have approached this from a number of perspectives:
All these theories have both merit and drawbacks, and we shall revisit them all in the sections to follow. The reality is that each of England's medieval towns had, at some point in its history, characteristics that fall into one or more of these categories; but the mix and balance varied considerably, geographically and chronologically.
We should also keep in mind that the challenges involved in definition apply not only to the issue of urban origins but also to the concept of urban growth. It is tempting to envisage that process as something spontaneous and naturalistic, in terms of a gradual, unorchestrated emergence of resources, facilities, activities, and behaviours supporting common (primarily, but not exclusively, communal) purposes and giving shape to an urban sub-culture. But there is a growing appreciation among scholars of the role of directed development, in terms of conscious planning (whether programmatic or piecemeal) in regard to sponsorship of settlement, endowment with privileges expected to foster economic prosperity and social well-being, and investment in the physical infrastructure of a community. Again, the interplay of organic and directed processes was individualistic for each town.
A relatively broad set of working criteria to help in defining a settlement as urban was developed by the Council for British Archaeology's Urban Research Committee (its membership a virtual Who's Who of leading urban historians at the time) and laid out in a report edited by Carolyn Heighway [The Erosion of History: Archaeology and Planning in Towns, May 1972, pp.8-10]. This list is worth summarizing, not only because of the input of so many leading experts, but also because it was adopted to guide the selection of places included within the Extensive Urban Survey project, carried out by local authorities in collaboration with English Heritage, which (although geographically incomplete) has provided us with an inventory of probable medieval towns more expansive than Beresford and Finberg's essential Hand-list of English medieval boroughs (1973). Most towns will not meet all the characteristics listed below, nor may those possessed be appicable all at the same point in history; some cluster of criteria is necessary to warrant defining a place as a town, and the more criteria met by a place, the more likely it is to have been urban in character a character that could be transitory in some cases.
Such a list is of course not a definition per se. But a concise definition that accommodates the wide range of forms taken by urbanism in the Middle Ages from the large provincial cities with relatively complex socio-economic structures and a high degree of self-government, to the small unchartered seigneurial towns sometimes difficult to distinguish from villages is something that may always elude historians. The problem is partly that we would like to be able to fit all towns, in the various forms in which they were expressed across a long period of time, into a single mold (this being the tyranny of the left hemisphere of the human brain); yet, to paraphrase Orwell, while at one level of perception all towns may be considered equal, the reality is that some were more equal than others. Some influential voices, such as Reynolds and Dyer (following Holt and Rosser), have boiled down the essence of medieval towns to two fundamental characteristics: the greater size and density of urban populations and the greater diversity of occupations in which those populations engaged. Yet this aims only to differentiate towns from villages, rather than characterize towns in a meaningful way. It fails to satisfy either the need to understand why towns came into being in the first place, or the functions that townspeople took on within a society traditionally viewed as comprising warriors, priests, and farm-workers, adding new dimensions to that society and transforming it in the process. In particular it does not allow that towns were not simply conglomerations of populace but were communities (albeit multi-faceted), with all that implies in terms of mutual support, common interests, and shared ambitions and perspectives. Nor does the stripped-down definition say anything about the course of urban development (let alone the catalysts, constraints, and other dynamics influencing that course) which by the close of the Middle Ages had engendered a number of towns recognizable to us in twentieth-century terms.