Exploring the landscape of English medieval towns: some West Midlands examples

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CWMH Research Seminar, 19 January 2023

Dr Mike Shaw, a former City of Wolverhampton archaeologist and Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, gave a fascinating online talk on methods used in the analysis of the topography, origins, growth and development of English medieval towns.

He began with an overview of the topic, highlighting a number of important past studies, notably Scofield and Vince, Medieval towns: the archaeology of British towns in their European setting.

Mike then described four approaches commonly used in topographical analysis all of which formed part of his own PhD research. These are: landscape analysis, town-plan analysis, documentary evidence and archaeological investigation.

With Bridgnorth as his example, Mike explained how landscape analysis is used in noting the original town’s location within its wider landscape; the geology and its effects on the settlement and the layout of roads and rivers. He discussed the effect of the replacement of a ford by a bridge such as Ludford Bridge at Ludlow, and how deflections in road patterns consequent upon the building of the bridge can be traced via old maps.

Ludlow from Ludford Bridge. [Copyright of Dr Mike Shaw]
Ludlow from Ludford Bridge. [Copyright of Dr Mike Shaw]
Town-plan analysis involves looking at both street patterns and plot boundaries within blocks of streets for evidence of the towns origins and development. Mike showed us a map of Eccleshall in Staffordshire divided into four chronological plan units: pre-Norman conquest, mid-twelfth-century, mid-twelfth-century to early thirteenth-century and thirteenth-century. He explained the importance of looking at property boundaries as well as street plans, for evidence of growth. He observed that some property boundaries were much smaller than others in Eccleshall and concluded that this was due to the building of a manor house which had absorbed some of the neighbouring properties.

Documentary evidence, such as that provided by the Domesday Survey is invaluable in the study of urban growth. An analysis of borough and market charters is similarly useful for dating a medieval town’s development through the history of its market.

Archaeological investigation can provide closer dating to support the other analytical approaches. Through the miracle of digital mapping software it is possible to overlay excavation plans with maps showing plot boundaries, to establish the extent to which medieval property boundaries discovered by excavations relate to plot boundaries shown on the later mapping. Mike showed an example of this for Northampton which confirmed that the majority of the plot boundaries delineated on the Victorian mapping dated back to the medieval period. However, overlaying a late Saxon excavation plan of Northampton with the Victorian mapping clearly showed those boundaries cutting through buildings, confirming that those boundaries did not exist at that period.

Mike’s talk generated numerous questions from an audience of well over a hundred participants, including:

Did the majority of medieval markets take place on Sunday, were they always located adjacent to the church and did the move to other locations happen at the same time? Mike replied that general disapproval of this practice was building during the late twelfth-century and markets gradually began to re-locate themselves away from churches and moved to other days of the week.

As well as larger rivers, were streams significant as early boundaries? Yes, streams did indeed sometimes mark a boundary.

Are there methodological approaches that work better in specific counties? This, Mike replied, depends upon what evidence has survived.

Has Mike undertaken any research at Birmingham which still exhibits burgage plots on old maps?

Mike hasn’t, but if interested suggests googling ‘Life, work and death in Birmingham’, or contact Mike for details of some town-plan analysis.

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