In 1621 Robert Burton moaned that ‘The Low countries have three cities at least for one of ours, and those far more populous and rich’, singular in their ‘industry and excellency in all manner of trades’. England, in contrast, had ‘swarms of rogues and beggars, thieves, drunkards and discontented persons, many poor people in all our Towns, Civitates ignobiles as Polydore calls them, base cities, inglorious, poor, small, and rare in sight, and thin of inhabitants’. In sum, ‘England … (London only excepted) hath never a populous city, and [is] yet a fruitful country.’
Until recently this depiction of English towns and cities has resonated with English urban historians of the early modern period in at least three respects. First, just as Burton invoked a depleted urban culture haunted by the spectre of poverty, so the prevailing interpretative paradigm has been ‘crisis’. The thriving communities of the medieval era are understood to have experienced cultural decline, economic trauma, and pronounced social stratification and conflict during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It was only after 1660 that an English ‘urban renaissance’ is thought to have seen the rejuvenation of many older settlements and the emergence of new industrial centres that broke the mould of the traditional urban system. Secondly, just as Burton singled out London as the exception to this rule, so historians have viewed the metropolis as an English urban anomaly – a place that experienced its own problems but also had a distinct and, indeed, positive impact on English society and economy more generally. The division of labour between metropolitan and provincial historiography has only served to compound this sense of London's uniqueness. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, just as Burton described a relative urban deficit in England so ‘the urban’ is a less than conspicuous feature of English social historiography. Peter Laslett did not regard towns and cities as a prominent part of ‘the world we have lost’, describing early modern England as ‘a rural hinterland attached to a vast metropolis through a network of insignificant local centres’. Even metropolitan London was less ‘a civic site’, than a landscape of ‘village communities’.