Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 106-107
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The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. I. 600-1540
The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. I. 600-1540. Edited by D. M. Palliser (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000) 841 pp. $140.00
"Wales in 1300 . . . was an urbanized society to a significant degree" (681). Many will be skeptical about this statement and many other similar ones in the massive new Cambridge Urban History of Britain, in part because the word urbanized conjures so many modern images of the hurlyburly of city life. What the authors of the various chapters in this book have in mind is something different. If a town, following Susan Reynolds' definition (accepted in this volume), is a "permanent and concentrated human settlement in which a significant portion of the population is engaged in non-agricultural occupations" and in which the residents "normally regard themselves, and are regarded by the inhabitants of primarily rural settlements, as a different sort of people" (5), then Wales was urbanized to a significant degree. That is to say, it was urbanized to a significant degree if a significant portion of the population were engaged in nonagricultural pursuits. What this rendering leaves out is what proportion determines significance—20 percent? 40 percent? more?—and what does the phrase "engaged in" signify? Is a moneylender who is also the husbandman of an acre plot sufficiently engaged in a nonagricultural occupation to be accounted a specimen of urban man?
The residents, the definition also requires, normally had to regard themselves as a different sort of people from rural dwellers. Traditionally, [End Page 106] the most often-adduced evidence of this sentiment, at least with regard to large towns, is that taken from charters granting special status to the residents of particular settlements. But if the question were merely a juridical one, then some inhabited places could claim urban status by charter even though they bear no other characteristic of urban life. Yet, an "essentialist" juridical understanding of the town is explicitly what the editor of the volume wants to reject. Moreover, misleading as charter evidence may be for the reconstruction of perceived urban identity in large towns, few, if any, sources are pertinent to the so-called small towns, as defined in this book, at least before 1300 or even later. What is the evidence that the men and women of late eleventh-century Watchet, a town according to Alan Dyer's list (751), had an urban mentality? With so elastic a definition as the authors of this book use, it is no wonder that statements like the one opening this review are found throughout the volume, and no consensus is reached about the percentage of the English population in 1300 that was urban or felt urban.
Nonetheless, the volume offers a feast to the attentive reader. After a brief introduction and essay about the remote origins of British settlement patterns (Part I), the work is divided into three major sections. Part II treats the early Middle Ages, idiosyncratically dated from 600 to 1300, because the authors see the various economic and natural disasters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a watershed. Part III deals with these difficult centuries, including questions of "class" hatred and oligarchic control. Part IV sums up what is known over the entire period (early and late Middle Ages) from various regional perspectives. Part V offers a short but judicious conclusion about what is known and what remains to be done on the subject of premodern urban history. An impressive group of appendices gives a rank-ordering to the settlements discussed, according to size or some surrogate (like contributions to national taxation).
This organization necessarily leads to a great deal of repetition, but it is not too high a price to pay. Thankfully, the individual chapters seem to be in conversation with one another. Moreover, each and every one of the chapters summarizes the most up-to-date scholarship, whether on English, Scottish, or Welsh settlements. These summaries cover studies based on archaeological remains, town plans...