How Urban was Medieval England?

Christopher Dyer argues for an upgrading of the town’s importance in the Middle Ages.

Medieval England is usually described as overwhelmingly rural. The vast majority of the population – nine-tenths or an even higher proportion – are said to have lived off the land as peasants or rural labourers, and those with power and influence, both lay lords and churchmen, drew their wealth from the broad acres of their country estates. This rural picture is imprinted in our minds by literary images like Piers Plowman sowing his half acre, and Robin Hood roaming in the greenwood. But these characters were part of a medieval rural myth.

Many medieval people, whose lives were pressured and complex, imagined that simple values and honest common sense were to be found in the countryside. Piers Plowman's creator, William Langland, lived in London, and his works were read by merchants, the Robin Hood play was acted annually by townspeople in fifteenth-century Exeter and Reading. Historians' low estimation of towns forms part of an old view of the Middle Ages which emphasises the under-development of the economy, in which irrational and otherworldly preoccupations, combined with short-sighted selfishness, were thought to have prevented technical progress, and inevitably condemned a large section of society to long-term poverty.

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