River navigation in Medieval England

River navigation in Medieval England

By Evan T. Jones

Journal of Historical Geography, Vol.26:1 (2000)

Abstract: The extent of river navigation in Medieval England and its importance to urban development became a matter of dispute in this journal during the early 1990s. The dispute began with the publication of an article by Jim Edwards and Paul Hindle that suggested that England’s Medieval rivers were navigable much further upstream than previously believed. Although their controversial thesis was attacked by John Langdon, the issue was not resolved. This paper reevaluates Edwards and Hindle’s case by taking up their challenge to examine the evidence on which their article was based. It is shown that although the approach they took was useful and valid, fundamental errors were made in their analysis and interpretation of the data. A major problem with their work is that the Middle Ages are implicitly treated as a homogeneous period. When the data for navigation is placed in a tighter chronological framework it becomes apparent that there was a decline in the extent of England’s navigable river network during the later Middle Ages. This decline appears to be related to an increase in obstructions to river traYc, which may in part be associated with a fall in late Medieval urban demand for bulk produce like grain and fuel.

Introduction: Several years ago this journal became the focus for a dispute over the extent to which England’s Medieval waterways were navigable. The altercation was sparked-off by an article, published in 1991, by Jim Edwards and Paul Hindle. Their article argued that the Medieval rivers of England and Wales were navigable much further upstream than previously believed and that since most towns in the country were close to navigable waterways, water transport must have been much more important to Medieval trade and urban development than had been recognised.

Two years later John Langdon responded in an article which severely criticised their position. He suggested that much of their evidence was derived from legal cases concerning obstructions in the rivers and pointed out that such cases may frequently have been brought by merchants who hoped to use an unnavigable river, rather than users of a river that was actually navigable. He further suggested that even when specific cargoes are mentioned, this could merely reflect an occasional use of a river that was rarely navigable. Langdon then employed purveyance accounts of the period 1295–1350 to determine the range of navigation.Although this pointed to a much more limited level of navigability, the dispute was never really resolved. This was because the parties’ reliance on dierent sources meant they failed to engage on the same ground. The debate therefore fizzled out with each party asserting that their sources gave a more accurate impression of the real position and Edwards and Hindle proclaiming that “we stand by our data, analysis and interpretation”.

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