Medieval Studies Towns and Cities in Medieval England
Benjamin McRee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0085


England was famously lacking in urbanization in the medieval era, at least in comparison with much of the European continent. Outside of London, which did rank as one of the largest and most important economic centers in Europe, few English cities could have stood with their continental counterparts in size, wealth, or political importance. Why, then, has so much scholarly fuss been made over the history of English towns? The rich documentation that survives for many urban settlements certainly provides at least a partial answer. But scholars have always had deeper reasons, ranging from the significance of urban constitutional experiments, which were especially important to early historians of town life, to the value of the goods that passed through their ports and gates and changed hands in their markets. Most of the work done since the 1960s has focused on a handful of such central themes, with governmental arrangements, economic organization, and social relations being the most important. These themes reflect a conviction that the importance of towns was greater than their size alone would suggest. The literature addressing these and other issues does not, unfortunately, break neatly into discrete categories. As a result, considerable overlap exists among the works in the sections that follow. Treatments of the urban economy, for example, often include a detailed discussion of social organization, as do accounts of politics and government. At least one of the works in the Women section has important implications for the economy, while an article listed under Economy focuses on women. Likewise, the comprehensive approach found in individual town studies naturally includes a bit of everything. The boundaries between the categories used here are best regarded, then, as porous, and those wanting to learn about particular aspects of urban life should sample broadly.

General Overviews

Excellent surveys of British urban life abound. Both Palliser 2000 and Swanson 1999 make good starting points. Lilley 2002 and Nicholas 2003 are Europe-wide accounts that provide a broader geographical context and a sharper theoretical framework for understanding British developments. Both also contain substantial discussions of English material throughout their thematically organized chapters, and Lilley includes examples drawn from Wales and Ireland as well. A number of very strong surveys appeared in the midst of a vigorous revival of urban studies during the 1970s. They are represented here by Ennen 1979 (a Europe-wide account), Platt 1976, and Reynolds 1977. Though obviously dated, these works are still worth consulting today. The contributions of archaeologists to urban history are surveyed in Schofield and Vince 2003, which provides an excellent introduction to the field and a succinct overview of current knowledge.

  • Ennen, Edith. The Medieval Town. Translated by Natalie Fryde. Europe in the Middle Ages 15. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1979.

    A remarkably balanced, wide-ranging survey of European urban life, originally published in German in 1972. Ennen emphasizes political organization and economic themes, but she also devotes chapters to the late Roman and early medieval periods, areas often left out of many compact surveys. The richest section, chapter 6, provides a panoramic survey of a wide range of urban settlements, beginning in Italy and moving north to include locations in Spain, France, Germany, Flanders, the Baltic, and Russia.

  • Lilley, Keith. Urban Life in the Middle Ages, 1000–1450. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2002.

    Lilley’s account is a refreshing reevaluation of what had clearly become familiar territory by the 21st century. An urban geographer, Lilley starts not with urban origins or sociological theory, but with a discussion of ideas put forward by planners and architectural theorists. Chapter 5, which traces the evolution of urban morphology, is particularly valuable. Written for a broader audience than any of the other surveys listed here.

  • Nicholas, David. Urban Europe, 1100–1700. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

    Nicholas’s brief overview emphasizes theoretical approaches to urban history, particularly those of Weber and of central place theory. The organization is thematic rather than chronological, reflecting the author’s view that no sharp break occurred between medieval and early modern urban developments. Includes a welcome chapter on city walls and plans.

  • Palliser, David M., ed. The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Vol. 1, 600–1540. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521444613

    The best starting point for a general introduction to British urban life in the Middle Ages. Although it lacks the consistent voice that only a single author can provide, it more than makes up for it in breadth, depth, and scholarly currency. The collection is divided into two large chronological sections (600–1300 and 1300–1540), each with nine thematic chapters written by leading experts. A third section contains regional surveys that include Wales and Scotland.

  • Platt, Colin. The English Medieval Town. London: Secker and Warburg, 1976.

    A general account focusing on the 12th through 15th centuries. The heart of Platt’s brief survey is its extensive treatment of what the author describes as “urban landscape” in chapter 2. Town plans, spatial organization, walls, housing, and other structures all receive generous discussion, supported by drawings and photographs. There is a strong emphasis throughout on social and economic perspectives.

  • Reynolds, Susan. An Introduction to the History of English Medieval Towns. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.

    Unlike many of the other surveys, Reynolds devotes considerable space to earlier centuries of urban development, including the Anglo-Saxon. Particularly strong on the evolution of arrangements for governing.

  • Schofield, John, and Alan Vince. Medieval Towns: The Archaeology of British Towns in Their European Setting. 2d ed. London: Continuum, 2003.

    An introductory survey of archaeological work on British towns. Though much of the material comes from England, the text is thick with the results of detailed research on towns throughout the British Isles. The second edition sets the British evidence more firmly in a European context. The authors are particularly concerned with establishing the value of archaeology for all those working on urban history. Includes numerous illustrations.

  • Swanson, Heather. Medieval British Towns: Social History in Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-27578-6

    Swanson’s concise survey, focusing on the central and late Middle Ages, moves briskly through the usual range of thematic topics in fewer than 150 pages. She has given the work a strong historiographic emphasis, with numerous brief but helpful references to the then-current literature. Wales and Scotland receive strong treatment, and there is some material on Ireland as well.

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