Townscape as text: the topography of social interaction in Fethard, county Tipperary, AD 1300-1700

Townscape as text: the topography of social interaction in Fethard, county Tipperary, AD 1300-1700

O’Keeffe, Tadhg (Department of Archaeology, National University of Ireland, Dublin – UCD)

Irish Geography, Volume 32 (1), 1999, 9-25


Social order within medieval towns was simultaneously created by and reflected in the macro-scale structuring of the townscape and the micro-scale structuring of the buildings within it. Observed changes in the layout and architecture of towns through the medieval and early modern periods reflect changes in the practices of social interaction. This matter is explored in this paper in the context of Fethard, county Tipperary, where medieval fabric is exceptionally well-preserved. 

Occupants of medieval rural habitats may have regarded towns as places of social homogeneity. First, urban environments were defined in the landscape by town walls, mental barriers as well as physical barriers, and entry through those walls was regulated for and by those who resided within. Secondly, town walls gave spatial definition to the particular tenurial arrangement of which burgesses were the product, and possession of property by burgage tenure was sufficiently envied among rural folk that the promise of burgess status could entice migration from the countryside of one region to the urban habitat of another, as happened in Ireland (Otway-Ruthven, 1968: 116). But urban society was not static for the duration of the middle ages. On the contrary, the urban market-place provided opportunities for upward social mobility, just as the urban constitutions which ensured the steady heartbeat of urban life in the middle ages also empowered certain individuals within that society. Medieval townscapes communicated this diversity in contemporary urban social order by providing perpetual canvases for both the display of wealth and the expression of political influence, and, conversely, by rendering lower levels of wealth less easily concealed. That information is still available provided the evidence of the townscapes can be read.

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