Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
THE SEARCH FOR DEFINITIONS
The growth of urban life is one of the most important features of English society in the period 900–1200. A small number of places in England arguably displayed urban characteristics before 900, but these were tiny in number and scope compared with the spread of towns visible in 1200. The traditional definition of what constituted a town, common in urban history prior to the 1970s, was taken directly from historical legal status based on founding charters and privileges. Archaeology, which began to reveal widespread traces of medieval occupation in English towns and cities in the third quarter of the twentieth century and has continued to do so since, has contributed a perspective which stresses the living conditions of ordinary people and the organic complexity of urban occupation. This led to a questioning of traditional historical definitions. Attempts were made, such as that by Martin Biddle, the excavator of medieval Winchester, to break down the essence of urbanization into a series of individual characteristics, such as a dense population, market functions, defences and evidence of planning – where conformity to all or some of which would qualify a place for urban status. Most historians, geographers and archaeologists still readily accord with the timeless and elegant definition provided by Susan Reynolds in 1977, namely that a town is ‘a permanent and concentrated non-agricultural settlement, supported by agricultural production located elsewhere, and maintaining a sense of social separateness from the countryside’.