Having covered the landowners and the rural populace in previous chapters Prestwich now moves on to the urban population of England at this time. He starts by considering how to define a town, which as with so many things in historical research isn’t as easy as it might sound. At first sight one might think it easiest to just use whatever designations the contemporary population used – only they weren’t particularly consistent and places are referred to differently in different documents and at different times. One possible criterion is which places sent representatives to parliament – but this varies from parliament to parliament. Or perhaps use taxation status – but then there’s the example of Boston in Lincolnshire which was still taxed as a village even when it was the fifth wealthiest place in England and the second largest port for wool exports. Legal definitions can include looking at the sort of tenure that the land was held by – but some places used burgage tenure when they weren’t actually towns by any other definition. A possible economic definition is that in a town most people should be involved in trade and manufacturing, rather than agriculture – again this works much better in theory than it does when you look at specific examples.
Taking the various criteria together and applying some judgement to the results Prestwich arrives at an approximation of 100-150 towns in England in this period, with a further 500 places that had some urban characteristics. This wasn’t a static figure, and in fact the 13th Century was a period where many new towns were established (not all of which were successful). Turning a village into a town, or starting one de novo, was good for a landlord as the revenue from a town in terms of tolls and taxes was much higher than for a rural community. New Salisbury is an example of a successful town foundation from this time. Later in the period this book covers there were fewer new town foundations – the potential urban population was already living in towns, so it was harder to attract settlers to a new one. The economy was also in a poorer state in the early 14th Century so there wasn’t as much fervour for new costly projects.
Prestwich moves on to discuss the townspeople themselves. If it’s hard to count towns, it’s even harder to count their population. The evidence for the people who lived in towns is even more scarce than for their rural contemporaries. By modern standards they were pretty small – London was the largest and the only one that was comparable to the great Continental cities of the time. It probably had a population of somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 in 1300, Prestwich says 70,000 seems a reasonable estimate. For reference and comparison the populations of some towns I’ve lived in are (according to wikipedia, in 2011): Oxford – 150,200; Cambridge – 122,700; Ipswich – 133,400. I don’t think of any of those as “all that big” and yet even the highest estimates for London in 1300 are far short of those three towns today.
The population of a town of the period probably wasn’t self-sustaining – conditions were less healthy than in the country, and people tended to die off more quickly. So towns effectively had a catchment area where new immigrants moved from, the size of which depended on the size and prestige of the town. The makeup of the urban population wasn’t the same as the rural population – the higher levels of society didn’t live in towns (although barons might have a town house in London). There were no villeins or unfree people in towns, either – in fact living in a town for a year and a day conferred freedom regardless of your previous status. The townspeople weren’t homogenous, however. They thought of themselves as divided into 3 sorts – the great men, those of middling status and the poor. The great men might be very wealthy merchants, trading internationally. The artisans and smaller traders would be the middling sort. There was a greater variety of occupations in a town than in a village, a lot of which were to do with production and sale of food and drink. Prior to their expulsion from the country in 1290 the Jews were also a significant feature of towns. They were among the wealthier inhabitants, due to their ability to lend money at interest (which was forbidden to Christians). And even prior to the worst persecution they were poorly treated by the rest of the community and kept themselves to themselves as not really a part of the town community.
Towns were frequently self-governing and separate from the county system. This was more likely to be the case if the landlord was the King – if the landlord was a lord he was more likely to want the increased prestige & authority that came with direct control. Relations between town (self-governing or not) and landlord weren’t always smooth with records of rebellions and of court cases. Conflict also occurred within the town community (unsurprisingly), sometimes arising from class conflicts and other times from more personal quarrels. Often the wealthy elite of the town would come into conflict with the rest of the townspeople by using their wealth and social/political status to ensure they got the best trading opportunities etc.
Towns were important in the medieval economy. In spite of being separate in some legal senses they were a critical part of the overall economy of the country. One way in which they were important for the rural economy was in consuming food. This need to feed the urban population had a significant effect on the viability of agriculture as a way for the rural population to support themselves (beyond subsistence). Towns also provided opportunities for people to specialise in particular manufacturing trades – providing a place to sell your goods as well as support yourself while doing so (like having more places to buy food etc). Towns also hosted markets and annual trading fairs, both of which made them into trading hubs for a wider area.
Guilds and fraternities were an important part of urban organisation & economy, but there’s not that much evidence left about them. They mostly appear to’ve been formed during the 13th Century (Prestwich says 14th but then contradicts himself so I think that was a mistake) – at the beginning of the 13th Century most towns had a guild merchant and a weaver’s guild, by the early 14th Century there are records of more diverse guilds. London guilds were formed earlier, and also suppressed at various times due to being a threat to the pre-existing power structure of the city. Guilds in general protected trades and crafts, while also providing a social focus.
Towns had lots of regulations and laws – due to being crowded places. Prestwich gives several examples of rules about sanitation and building regulations. Pest control also was important – although not always how you might think. For instance there were regulations against shooting pigeons in London in the 1320s, because the arrows and stones used tended to break windows or injure people. Public order needed to be maintained, too – including many attempts to drive out prostitutes, a particularly urban problem.
Religious life in towns was also important – with many parish churches, fraternities and friaries in towns. Friars were generally an urban phenomenon as basing themselves in towns meant they could preach to the greatest numbers of people.
Prestwich finishes the chapter by considering the impact of war on towns during this time period. For inland towns there’s not much effect but ports were more significantly impacted. Both by the requirements of the Crown for shipping, and by raids by the French.