Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Building Domesticity in the City: English Urban Housing Before the Black Death

Sarah Rees Jones, Univerity of York

This paper will concentrate on the documentary evidence for urban housing in England between the Norman Conquest and the Black Death. The fabric of towns in this period ahs been relatively neglected by scholars due to the greater abundance of below-ground archaeology for pre-Conquest periods and of surviving buildings for the period after 1300. Nevertheless the pioneering work of scholars such as Salter, Urry and Keene on Oxford, Canterbury, Winchester and London and the applicants’ own work on York has demonstrated the relative abundance of written sources for this period as the use of written charters increased and records of government also became more abundant. A few well-preserved houses – such as those of Lincoln and Southampton, and a larger number of excavated examples in London and various provincial towns – have also been thoroughly recorded and discussed.

Archaeologists have established three key areas of investigation in relation to the form of housing in this period: the shift between less permanent and more permanent technologies of building (including the rise of timber framing), the relationship between rural and urban house types, and the relationship of houses to the town plan in the planning and development of burgage plots. To date most historical work in relation to these sites has focused on establishing, where possible, the documented ownership and occupation of the property. Meanwhile other historians (such as Hudson, Hyams and Brand) have fundamentally re-conceptualized the nature of property in relation to the law in this period, yet without applying their ideas to the built environment.

This paper will therefore address a broader agenda about the relationship between the development of literacy and the development of the material form of the urban house over this period. The practice of writing and keeping records produced new legal commercial climates in which property and houses could be settled in new ways. These changes were instrumental in promoting changes in the design and construction of domestic buildings, and helped determine the overall development of the town plan. In the processes the distinctions between urban, rural and aristocratic societies were redrawn (both legally and materially), the relationship of a family to its property was realigned and the status of the householder (or active citizen) was redefined. This new legal and material environment created the context in which a concept of bourgeois domesticity could flourish in literary and didactic texts as well as in government records and the material record before and after the Black Death. The empirical content of the paper will be based on the applicant’s published and unpublished work on York and comparative material from other English and European towns. Concepts of the bourgeois are discussed in relation to a variety of modern authors from Marx and Guizot to Barry, Burger and Vance Smith.


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