Sunday, September 11, 2016

Space and the End of the Middle Ages in Britain

  Now I am not a person who likes to indulge in debates about periodisation in history. As far as I am concerned, the middle ages came between the early ages and the recent ages. There is no one set of events, or values, or levels of knowledge, or types of government, or religion which draws a line between different eras. It is all a complicated jigsaw. Scholars of Italian history like to put the end of the middle ages earlier than those of British history for the paradoxical reason that Italian intellectuals suddenly took an interest in the writings of the ancient past. The French seem to like to keep the medieval era going until they all became Enlightened.

Ruins of Lanercost Priory, Cumbria
  In Britain the changes of the Reformation are taken to be a watershed issue that could be considered epoch changing. The family medievalist firmly asserts that the medieval period ended in England in 1540. So there. Much ink has been expended on how much, how comprehensively and how quickly those religious changes got into the mindsets of ordinary people. Not going there. Enough said already and some of it based on modern personal belief rather than much else. What did happen in England was that the use of space in daily life changed. The configuration of town and country was changed forever.

  I have always found Oxford a rather unwelcoming place. Nothing to do with the people, although I guess they have their little exclusivities at times, but the ancient layout of the town is a trifle forbidding. Everywhere there are exclusion zones, defined by elegant quadrangles which are not public space. The streets are oppressively walled off and you feel that all the action is going on inside those secluded enclaves from which you are barred. Like many first time visitors, I was lost and confused about where the university actually was, gradually realising that the university is not a bounded entity but a whole bunch of entities dotted around the town, each claiming its bit of space and history.

The vast complex of Blackfriars, Norwich, middle distance behind another large church.
  Late medieval towns were a bit like that. In the larger and more prosperous towns, various types of religious institutions had acquired space within the town walls, built increasingly grand constructions and enclosed them within their own walls. These were communities within the larger community, and those not members of them just walked past and wondered, I guess.

Anglo-Saxon tower of St Mary-le-Wigford, Lincoln, one of three surviving medieval churches.
  This is the pattern for the end of the middle ages, but it doesn't define the whole epoch. Towns which were prosperous before the Norman Conquest had many small parish churches founded by lay patrons, many of which did not survive to the end of the middle ages as parishes consolidated. The constant process of church rebuilding meant that the surviving churches became larger and more elaborate as others disappeared. The monasteries became larger, more elaborate and more powerful forces in the land.

Southwell Minster, collegiate church.
  More recently founded collegiate churches, with colleges of canons rather then monks, rivalled the cathedrals for grandeur.

St Cross Hospital, Winchester
  Hospitals were built, not as places of medical healing but where the poor, elderly and sick could be cared for. In the case of the leper hospitals they were also for protecting the rest of the community against disease and were often located outside the town walls. Within the towns they ranged from little houses of charity, pilgrimage hostels, to some quite grand institutions, often run by Augustinian canons and resembling other large, enclosed church institutions.

Blackfriars complex, Norwich, largest surviving in the land.
  The arrival of the friars in the 13th century added more to the ecclesiastical mix of the towns. The concept of mendicants living like the apostles on charity in the streets gave way to the building of large complexes, each in their own enclave. The massive churches were available for the laity to be preached to, but the borders of the enclaves expanded as town populations took a hit after the bubonic plague of the 14th century.

Ruins of the bishop's palace at Lincoln.
  Bishops and archbishops claimed pieces of towns all over the country, constructing large palaces for when they went rambling around their dioceses. They did it in style, even when they were away from home.

Fountains Abbey
  Even in the countryside large areas were controlled by the church. The Cistercian abbeys set in remote locations for the monks to live the ascetic and contemplative life became large estates with increasingly huge and elaborate buildings. The various abbeys had rural manors all over the place. Some of these places must have seemed like small towns in their own right.
  Essentially the church had space, the church had walls. Then within a very short period of time, those walls came down. The friaries and some collegiate churches seem to have disappeared quite rapidly, their walls pillaged for building materials, their buildings sometimes used for other civic purposes, but steadily running down. Leland, in his travels around England immediately after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, refers to the friaries and urban abbeys in the past tense, which they certainly were in terms of being institutions but probably rapidly became so in terms of fabric. Daniel Defoe, describing Lincoln in the early 18th century, claims that barns, stables, out-houses and "hog-styes" were built "church fashion" using carved stones from old ecclesiastical buildings.

A bit of old stone wall, all that exists of the Austin friary in York.
  York had substantial houses of the four major orders of friars, but barely a stone remains and those not very recognisable. This is not an uncommon fate for these institutions.

Rievaulx Abbey as garden ornament.

  These changes to the use of space were probably less obvious in rural areas. Large rural monasteries were taken over by large rural landholders who nicked stonework to build their new mansions but left ruins for their aesthetic value and swank. You can see how a medieval monastery was laid out and worked in the wild hills of Yorkshire better than in the crowded towns.

Norwich Cathedral with beat up remains of monastic cloisters.
  Even the urban monasteries that were cathedrals, or were turned into cathedrals, lost much of the structure outside the church and their sense of enclosure.

Partially ruined collegiate church at Howden.
  Collegiate churches disappeared or declined. Even the beautiful Beverley Minster was barely rescued from destruction by some engineering genius in the 18th century, as the townsfolk continued to use the town church of St Mary's, as they had always done. There was just too much church around. In Leicester and Norwich collegiate churches disappeared, releasing their enclosed spaces for other urban purposes.

Holy Trinity Hospital, Leicester.
  Hospitals became run down and less able to provide for those they served without the charity of the church, and the obligations the church put on others, to support them. In Leicester Holy Trinity Hospital became steadily more decrepit until it was rebuilt in the late 18th century.

Where a bishop's palace once was, Northallerton.
  The bishops and archbishops had to curb their profligate living arrangements and the palaces dotted around the place  were appropriated, pillaged or disappeared.
  New urban amenities were built, such as grammar schools to replace the teaching functions of the church schools. It does seem that some areas of the towns were ransacked for their materials and became a bit derelict until the renewal of urban amenities in the 19th centuries. Post offices, railway stations, theatres, museums and art galleries so often occupy the sites of medieval religious institutions. Changes to trade, transport and commerce over time caused towns as a whole to open up as walls and gates were demolished. This process has gone to extremes with modern road transport in some places. (I'm looking at you, Leicester and Nottingham.)
  So perhaps we can define the end of the middle ages in English towns not so much by religious change as such, whatever that implies in terms of belief or private conviction, but in terms of use of urban space. This just leaves the question of whether bringing down those old walls reclaimed the space for the town dwellers, or handed them over to a new class of owners.

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