Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
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.