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6 - Town life

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Richard Britnell
Affiliation:
University of Durham
Rosemary Horrox
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
W. Mark Ormrod
Affiliation:
University of York
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Summary

THE URBAN ENVIRONMENT

Medieval English towns, though much smaller than those of today, were sufficiently distinct from rural communities to justify separate consideration. They were trading centres, where employment was heavily dependent on non-agrarian activities. Though this implies that they should be identified primarily by economic criteria, towns developed distinctive characteristics, and the largest ones created political and cultural institutions without parallel in rural communities. There was no medieval word corresponding closely to our word ‘town’, but most of the places that need consideration for their urban characteristics were described in contemporary documents as ‘boroughs’, a word packed with a complex amalgam of economic, legal and cultural significance. Many different aspects of development were apparent in the physical shape and appearance of towns, so that a survey of the urban environment leads some way to an appreciation of what it meant to be a medieval town-dweller.

Though towns varied greatly in population and complexity, their size and layout alone distinguished them from rural settlements. The principal street or streets were lined with a distinctive configuration of properties, often of half an acre or less, held by money rents and freely transferable by sale or lease. These were the characteristics of ‘burgage tenure’, the form of freehold most characteristic of the urban environment, and many boroughs were so called simply because they contained properties of this kind.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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  • Town life
  • Edited by Rosemary Horrox, University of Cambridge, W. Mark Ormrod, University of York
  • Book: A Social History of England, 1200–1500
  • Online publication: 05 June 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139167154.007
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  • Town life
  • Edited by Rosemary Horrox, University of Cambridge, W. Mark Ormrod, University of York
  • Book: A Social History of England, 1200–1500
  • Online publication: 05 June 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139167154.007
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Town life
  • Edited by Rosemary Horrox, University of Cambridge, W. Mark Ormrod, University of York
  • Book: A Social History of England, 1200–1500
  • Online publication: 05 June 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139167154.007
Available formats
×