Decline or Transformation? Archaeology and the Late Medieval ‘Urban Decline’ in Southern England
By Ben Jervis
Archaeological Journal, Vol.174:1 (2017)
Abstract: Archaeological evidence is used to examine how urban life changed in the later medieval towns of Sussex, Surrey, and Hampshire in southern England, in light of ongoing debates about the existence of a fifteenth-century urban ‘decline’. The article proposes that rather than seeking evidence of decline, we should consider how and why experiences of urban life vary. The role of towns in commercial and political networks is highlighted as a key cause of variability in late medieval urban experience.
Introduction: Structural changes to the rural economy in response to the crises of the fourteenth century are now well understood. It was, for example, a combination of social, environmental and economic factors which accelerated the farming out of demesne land and a shift towards less labour intensive pastoral agriculture in the later fourteenth to fifteenth centuries.
As Campbell shows, there is no single narrative for these changes, with their pace and intensity determined by factors such as population density, the proximity to large towns and any particular English region’s natural environment. The social and economic implications of these changes have been studied from historical and archaeological perspectives, with these narratives being linked by a shared emphasis on their role in initiating the development of capitalist modes of agricultural production.