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By European standards, late sixteenth-century England was lightly urbanised; London aside, a land of small towns. Two centuries later England had become entrained in urban growth that was without European parallel. This transformation raises many questions about the town–country relations and the economic and cultural context within which it occurred.
Discussion of town–country relations involves tensions, sometimes contradictions, among themes of contrast (the divergent experiences of ‘town’ and ‘country’), diversity (a variety of experiences in particular places that undermines the categories ‘urban’ and ‘rural’) and integration (connections among places). There is no inevitability about how these themes are interrelated. For example, places frequently became increasingly differentiated as spatial divisions of labour increased within a more integrated economy, while other facets of spatial integration were associated with reduced diversity, such as the diffusion of more uniform attitudes to work or consumption. Moreover, a dualism of town and country may not provide the most important categories within which to analyse integration and differentiation. For example, analyses of industrial change may reject perspectives based on competition between urban and rural industries, in favour of an emphasis on changing regional town-country networks, and the intertwining of urban and rural life.
The chapter is divided into four main sections. The first section examines institutional factors bearing on town-country relations and regional economic change in early modern England, which have a lower historiographical profile than in continental Europe.
A town was never more a town than when filled with country people.’
towns in early modern Britain performed many commercial, manufacturing, service, legal, political and cultural functions, and these were unevenly distributed. Even capitals as dominant as London and Edinburgh did not contain all the activities found in their respective urban systems, and different towns performed varying combinations of functions, whose fortunes shaped significant restructurings of British urban systems over this period. Urban production and trade, and their regulation, involved townspeople acting in various local, regional and national contexts. Many facets of urban life were tightly intertwined with hinterlands, and interdependences of town and country were central to many urban economic sectors. While some historiographical tension persists between work focusing on contrasting features of urban and rural life, and work focusing on urban–rural (and urban–urban) connections, the foci are substantially complementary. Contrasts grew as connectivity increased, with growing spatial divisions of labour in economic, political, social or cultural activities. This chapter considers urban life, insofar as it was distinctive, through the specialised roles connecting towns with other places. We interpret ‘agrarian’ broadly, since rural economies were seldom solely agricultural.
In comparative studies of European urbanisation, threshold populations of 5,000 or 10,000 have often been used, and for the demographic analysis of British towns this makes sense. But from an economic perspective very many much smaller places were unambiguously regarded as towns by contemporaries for whom functions, rather than population, provided ‘urban’ attributes. Sixteenth-century urban economic specialisations were less marked than later, but earlier commentators readily – if unsystematically – characterised towns by their specialised functions.