The Study of Medieval Townscapes, Part 1

THE STUDY OF MEDIEVAL TOWNSCAPES, PART 1 – Some thoughts about the English landscape tradition

There are many different methods and theories that are popular in the study of medieval towns and their natural context. The subject is not limited to a single discipline, but is multidisciplinary in its nature and can be approach in a great variety of ways. As this blog is concerned with medieval landscapes it could be interesting to raise a few questions putting the study of urban settlements into the context of landscape studies as a whole. We will start by exploring a bit the Historical English Landscape Tradition which has dominated much of European studies of historical landscapes.


   My previous studies have mostly been focused on British material, where we actually find quite a gap in literature and articles discussing the natural context of medieval towns. This is mostly a result of the historical geographical heritage in England in which English landscape archaeology and landscape studies in general have their roots. This particular branch of study is commonly known as “the English landscape tradition”. The English landscape tradition is mostly in methodology based on the works of geographer W.G. Hoskins and archaeologist O.G.S. Crawford and as studies of urban landscape is also very interdisciplinary in its nature. The now deceased Hoskins appears as the central character and idol of this movement and the story of his life is in many ways important in order to understand the roots of the English landscape tradition .

   One of the more interesting episodes of Hoskins life is the fact that he spent five years in London during the second world war. As a man grown up wandering around the countryside of Devon it is understandable that he hated the mere idea of living in this urban metropolis. Apparently he spent these years in reflection with a certain sadness in seeing all his countrymen living this in his opinion “rootless life” (Johnson 2007: 37-8).

   This experience, in combination with Hoskins inspiration from romantic authors such as William Wordsworth (Johnson 2007: 20-22) contributed to his mostly rural and picturesque ideals of historical landscape. It should also be noted that Hoskins promoted investigations of local history rather than regional or nationwide studies. This was rooted in the idea that you must be connected with your object of study, both physically and mentally, in order to understand that particular landscape. It should also be noted that as Hoskins considered himself mentally directly connected with his medieval ancestors (see post below) he must therefore have considered that linkage through related blood should make this connection even stronger. This has obviously had a huge impact on landscape studies in Britain, which are nowadays mostly focused on small local studies without making comparisons to larger areas of land. Assumptions and generalisations are made by analysing smaller case studies without reference to a larger picture.

   This ideal in many ways speaks against studies of urban landscapes which are vast areas in the present mostly considered non-rural. These places does not usually provoke the romantic picturesque nostalgia so highly valued by Hoskins and are therefore not deemed valid objects of study to landscape historians or archaeologists. This is reflected in much of the work done on Englands historical landscape focused on fields, farmlands and villages in quite small areas or regions. Large scale interpretations are more rarely found and almost none of them analysing urban settlements as more than a backdrop for the rural civilisation. This might be legitimized by the fact that in medieval times agricultural society dominated the landscape and was a central part of the feudal world. It can therefore be argued that rural forms of life is a better representation of the medieval world than the urban or aristocratic ones.

   In conclusion, it is sad that studies of urban landscapes is so underrepresented in the vast world of English landscape studies. This is especially true since the coming of the post-processual era in archaeology, where we before could find at least several attempts at tackling this subject. England is an interesting country to study from this perspective, and there are still many questions yet to be answered.