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.