Leicestershire settlements through the late fourteenth century poll tax records – urban or rural?
By Michael Busby
Medieval Settlement Research Group, Annual Report 22 (2007)
Introduction: Leicestershire’s medieval settlement pattern consisted of nucleated villages, generally 1·2 miles apart; these followed a regime of mixed farming on common fields. In the fourteenth century Leicestershire had more than 300 settlements, but only Leicester qualified as one of the top ranking English towns. There were a few small market towns, but many of the settlements were totally dependent on agriculture. Between these lay a range of vill types, some of which offered limited ‘urban’ services. Can the position of individual settlements on this urban-rural spectrum be determined? If so, then can their status be attributed to factors other than chance?
The poll lax returns for Leicestershire for 1377-81 give an exceptional opportunity to investigate these questions. They provide details of settlement size (1377) and individual taxpayer names (1379 and 1381). The 1381 records for eastern Leicestershire also record occupations, allowing the relative importance of agricultural and non-agricultural occupations to be established. Clues for the rest of the county are offered by occupational surnames and tax details from the 1379 records. The analysis of occupational-mix patterns allowed each settlement 10 be categorised into one of five vill-types. The mapping of the different vill types across the county .supported an investigation into their geographical distribution and into possible factors influencing urbanisation: castles and religious houses; markets and fairs; significant medieval routes. Of particular interest was the influence of the pays or ‘contrasting countrysides’.