‘Coming into Canterbury’, wrote Charles Dickens in David Copperfield, ‘I loitered through the old streets with a sober pleasure that calmed my spirits and eased my heart. There were the old signs, the old names over the shops … the venerable Cathedral towers … the battered gateways.’ For Dickens, and for the modern visitor to towns where medieval fabric can still be seen (such as Norwich, which claims to have more surviving medieval churches than any other town in western Europe), the built environment creates a powerful sense of place and a reassuring frame of reference. We can try to reconstruct the former townscape and delve behind it to study the relationship between physical settings and the attitudes which influenced the conduct of medieval life.
The construction of the built environment in medieval British towns reflected both social values and personal initiatives or personal monument making, be it repairing a bridge, erecting a conduit or adding a chapel to the local parish church. But the period was not static. Over the two and a half centuries covered by this chapter, certain developments and underlying trends can be seen.
During the medieval period, several features of construction and amenity first appeared in towns: jetties for the first floor and higher by 1300 (already in London by 1246), dormer windows by 1450 and the flooring over of halls which probably happened in profusion in towns during the fifteenth century before it was necessary or thought fashionable in the countryside. The underlying motors were the conjunction of pressure on space and the availability of cash, generated by trade and other urban pursuits (such as rents), which created the climate for innovation and display, both at the level of grand patronage in a church or the ordinary house.