The importance of London for craft and industry in medieval England
By Jennifer Hatton
The Post Hole, No.47 (2016)
Introduction: Understanding medieval London can be a struggle, and poses a rather difficult picture for archaeologists. Although the archaeological evidence is usually good in confines of the medieval London walls, and is in especially good condition along the Themes, due to the waterlogged conditions to the sites, which has provided excellent evidence for craft and industry in Medieval London. The evidence in the inner London boroughs is sporadic and variable, with few substantial remains, often due to the Victorian and Georgian cellars which destroyed layers of earlier archaeology. There are certain medieval industries for which archaeological evidence is particularly abundant, including stone working, metals, pottery and tile, brick, glass, leather, textiles, antler and bone, and wood. Within modern perspectives, the relationship between towns and industry is so clearly set that it must be constantly remembered that the majority of craft and industry in the medieval period occurred in the countryside. The countryside generally had better living standards than the densely occupied urban landscape, where the majority of workshops were accommodated within the same building as housing. This paper will focus on the finer details of craft and industry in medieval London, and discuss why these artisans located themselves in urban areas.
Why were artisans permitted to practise in towns, rather than in the countryside, where fuel, labour and water would be nearby? Towns provided vital access to trade routes and merchants for their raw materials and finished products. On the other hand, the cost of property in urban settings was much higher than in the countryside, varying between main and side streets as well as suburbs, and this also affected the location of urban industry.
As land became scarce in urban settlements, narrower plots and space was used to create new buildings and structures. Contemporary shop houses in London often rose three or more stories, accommodating several families, and in central districts plots and buildings were repeatedly divided, leading to fears over the degeneration of neighbourhood quality. Despite these negatives, around 175 specialised trades have been recorded in London, which is a much higher number than anywhere else in the country.
Top Image: Ivory chess piece of a knight, probably made in London, England. Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art