The archaeology of medieval small towns in the west midlands
Worcestershire County Council Archaeological Service, Woodbury,
University College Worcester, Henwick Grove, Worcester WR2 6AJ
This paper is an overview of the archaeological research framework for smaller medieval towns in the West Midlands. It should be read in conjunction with Nigel Baker’s discussion of the major medieval towns (Baker, this web site).
There are sound reasons for viewing smaller towns as a settlement type that is distinct from both larger towns and rural settlements. The distinction is a useful one for both developing an archaeological research agenda for the medieval period and for ensuring effective professional practice.
We need a working definition of towns, and historians and archaeologists broadly agree that such a definition can best be defined in terms of their economic basis and social structure. Chris Dyer has offered this definition: ‘we define towns as permanently established concentrations of people, who were pursuing a variety of non-agricultural occupations, in which crafts and trades would predominate but which also included administrators, clergy, schoolteachers, prostitutes and other specialists. To would-be migrants, the towns beckoned because they gave opportunities for different skills and talents’ (Dyer 2002, 187-8).
Medieval towns should not be defined by simple criteria such as legal status, population size, physical dimensions, morphology, or the presence of distinctive types of monument (such as town walls). Although there is no difficulty in recognising large medieval towns as a distinctive type of settlement with complex social and economic structures, the full range of medieval urban settlements is not so well understood. The distinction between the smaller towns and rural settlements depends on an assessment of documentary sources, together with archaeological, architectural and topographic evidence (Dyer 1994, 292). Archaeologists need to recognise the distinctive character of smaller towns in terms of relevant research framework, not least because such an understanding is the starting point for archaeological research management.
Small towns were an important aspect of the medieval settlement pattern. They were numerous in medieval England, and it has been estimated that by 1300 about 20% of the population is estimated to have been town dwellers; perhaps half of them living in the 450 to 500 small towns across the country (Keene 2000). In England, historical research has identified the majority of medieval urban settlements through the distinctive legal status they often acquired (Beresford and Finberg 1973; Beresford 1981).
There has been a wealth of archaeological research in larger towns since the 1970s, and the results of this work have made a major impact on current knowledge of urban history (Ottaway 1992; Schofield and Vince 2003). However the contribution made by archaeological evidence from smaller medieval towns has been very small, and this cannot simply be explained as a low level of re-development. Across England, the archaeological potential of smaller medieval towns has been poorly understood by archaeologists, or even misunderstood. In the past, archaeological research in smaller towns has tended to focus on significant monuments, such as castles or monastic institutions, with little interest in investigating smaller towns as settlements with a range of social and economic functions that formed an important part of the medieval landscape.
However in recent years new approaches are being developed, and these have led to an increase in archaeological fieldwork. It has been argued that: ‘over time…this upswing in archaeological work in smaller towns will have a considerable academic impact’ (Gerrard 2003, 209).