Living in Towns: Archaeological Approaches to Medieval Urbanism

Module: AR2034 

  • What did towns look like after Roman decline?
  • When do we see a ‘rebirth’ of towns?
  • Were medieval towns heavily fortified?
  • How clean were medieval towns and households?
  • Were medieval towns dominated by religious structures?

These are just some of the questions tackled in this module, which centres on how archaeology contributes to our understanding of urbanism in the period c. AD 500-1700. We will focus on British urbanism, but will also draw on examples from both northwest Europe and the Mediterranean.

While there are many towns with medieval and Roman roots, such as Leicester, Chester, York or Winchester, often the medieval fabric of these places is limited to churches and cathedrals, while many crucial aspects of urban living are poorly understudied or have been wiped away – such as town walls, slum housing, old market spaces, industries, etc. We will explore how modern archaeology and architectural survey can piece together how these towns looked and functioned across the Middle Ages.

We will look at periods and broad themes, but also examine specific sites as case studies to illuminate these – such as Anglo-Saxon Wallingford, Viking York, and medieval Lincoln. We will of course also draw upon the evidence of our own city of Leicester – now one of the best explored archaeologically (and not just because of Richard III’s car park burial!)

Topics covered

  • What is urban archaeology?
  • Towns at the end of the Roman Empire
  • Saxon burhs
  • Viking-age trading towns
  • Norman urbanism
  • Hierarchies
  • Defence
  • Markets and trade
  • Churches and towns
  • Death and burial
  • Food and towns
  • Urban environments
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